Cro'ach — A Fateful Day
The rest of the day the baron held a war council, including in the meeting Sir Athrun, Sir Tirrian, and the lords of the barony: Onglaith, Orchbroe, Calbran, Almhurth, Hastrun, and Trisian. The flaps of the pavilion were closed the entire time.
Tomorrow was Cro'ach and promised to be eventful. Sir Ennemath, Sir Caldriuth, and Horlach had not yet returned from their scouting mission and Raima was getting worried.
Mordraith went to see Cludaen. This was after Gaidrach had revealed that Bruehan travelled with a Rhoenach, and also after the confirmation of oaths.
The long day of closed-door discussions was finally over and Mordraith learned (from gatekeeper Dalian) that Cludaen had retired from the field (so to speak) and could be found in his chambers.
Building up the nerve to speak to him seemed even harder since Mordraith approached the doors to his chambers, not his office. Still, the issue seemed important, so he rapped on the door. After a moment, the door cracked open and Cludaen's tired face appeared. He smiled briefly and asked Mordraith what he wanted.
“Um, I got back this morning with Father and decided to go to the temple for a while,” Mordraith began hesitantly. “I ... I had a vision. Crohelm showed me a place and told me to beware.”
Cludaen furled his brow with a somewhat confused look. “A vision from Crohelm? How strange. He is to return to us.” He apologized abruptly and invited Mordraith inside. It was a small antechamber with a place for sitting and a view of the courtyard. “Sit there on that bench. Would you like something to drink?”
Despite his apparent weariness, Cludaen gracefully assembled a pair of small goblets and a bottle of liquor. “This is an excellent time to drink, to relieve yourself of worries before tomorrow. You mustn't let this vision bother you.”
The Prelector sat down across from Mordraith in a comfortable looking chair and took a sip from his goblet.
“Now I want you to tell me more about this vision. Did you see Crohelm himself? What was this place he showed you?”
Mordraith replied no to the first question, then described the ruined castle he saw for the second. Cludaen shook his head.
“There are many ruins near here; mostly Verentian. Some are very, very old, but those are not usually recognizable as anything more than hills of rubble. There is Castle Crohelm, but then the warning doesn't make any sense. It is just a ruin with nothing of value left inside. On the other hand, perhaps the castle in your vision was not a ruins, but instead is a place that will be ruined. Is he trying to tell us that he won't return to us, and that the beastmen will destroy the barony? Dethrall seems certain that they will come here. They want ... no he wants the relics in the Tower of Books.”
Cludaen nodded and looked at Mordraith gravely. “Know the name of your enemy, Mordraith. It is Ietome. We believe it is he who abducted Mordrigan, and who conspires with the villain Bruehan and with the beastmen to score a coup against us. Ietome is a powerful priest of a dark god we called the Warlock. This dark god ... the Gedringals know his true name, but it does not matter. The Warlock is only a servant of Eimragh the Creator, he who is the true enemy of mankind, and chief foe of Malladun.”
“As for Crohelm, I'm sure he's looking after our best interests. It is customary to maintain a vigil in the temple and receive a vision, but it usually takes all night. Perhaps Crohelm wanted to make sure you got what was coming. It means you are ready to be indoctrinated.”
Prelector Cludaen rose and made his way to a locked chest. He opened it with a small key from a chain around his neck, and pulled out a shiny metal object.
“Here you are,” he said. He held a piece of jewelry that looked like a shooting star, or a morningstar (the mace variety). A particularly fancy rendering of Malladun's symbol. “Carry this with you always. It is a gift. Tomorrow, when Dethrall speaks the words upon you and places the helm on your head, prick yourself with this pin. This action will attune you to the magic that is in the brooch and thus grant you protection from Ietome's dark magic.”
Mordraith studied the brooch curiously and fastened it above his heart.
“Thank you,” he said simply. “Am I supposed to hold a vigil anyway?” The prospect of one isn't very attractive as I'd really like to go to sleep for a few years or so. These past few days have been somewhat taxing, and now this. Ietome, the Warlock and the Creator.
“You should at least spend the night in the temple. You have to experience it at least once.” Cludaen smiled. Perhaps he saw some humor in the situation.
Mordraith sighed. “I suppose this is all a plan of our enemies'. First they somehow manage to kill Malladun so as to even the balance a bit, the final step must be to free the Creator. What is happening now is that they are trying to prevent Malladun from returning and as this is the center of the movement, this is where they strike. This must have gone on ever since Gur-Docherlan, on and off with feints and strikes. Hm, I wonder if Gur-Docherlan wasn't also just a battle in an eternal war, ever since men came here.”
“Perhaps,” said Cludaen. “I am glad to see you are grasping the overall picture. I had faith in your ability to do so. Why don't you meditate upon this ... during your night in the temple.”
Mordraith felt the enormity of the conflict, the unimaginable scale of this struggle paling his problems into insignificance. Which did not seem fair. It made his worries seem childish and egoistical, a view he would not accept. If normal human concern, kindness and love meant nothing then the struggle was not worth the effort. Suddenly he came to some sort of clarity of mind and with uncharacteristic force he declared somewhat pompously:
“I pledge myself to Man and with my body, my mind, my heart I will protect and serve Man and my Guide shall be Love. Let the Gods bear witness.”
The words came with a force of their own and put themselves on his lips. Feeling that he had passed some theshold and that there was no turning back, Mordraith turned to Cludaen, slightly embarrased.
“There was one thing I think I should tell you. It seems that Bruehan was in the company of somone from Rhoenach and as the murdered Ralubians had been beheaded some people are beginning to suspect Seorn for having somethin to do with it. I just thought you should know.”
“Yes, well `Rhoenach' is not a place,” explained Cludaen, “ but a society of warriors from Fearthlond. They have a rather bloodthirsty code and occasionally lose control, but they do make good bodyguards. They're very faithful. For what it's worth I'm not too comfortable with the Grand Hierophant bringing a Rhoenach here, and the presence of one in Bruehan's band does not bode well for our livelihood. But, there is probably less to this than rumors might imply. There's nothing to worry about unless there are many of them, and I've seen no indication of such.”
A thought suddenly struck Mordraith. “You know that sir Athrun's squire was held captive by Bruehan and this Ietome turned up there too. I don't know where this was, but could it have been the castle in my vision?”
“As Horlach explained it to me, he was held captive near an old ruined shrine, the kind built by our ancestors from before the time of the Drue Lords. He never actually saw Ietome, only heard the name. But perhaps there is some connection between the castle and Ietome. Could he be using it as a base of operations?” Cludaen shrugged. “This is something that could be investigated. A task you might be suited for.”
With that Mordraith bade the Prelector good night, apologizing again for keeping him up this late. Mordraith made his way to the temple and found the familiar place before the brown statue of Malladun.
Tamhan stuck near Gaidrach, pestering him with questions.
“What do you think is here that the beastmen want? Are you sure they won't attack anywhere else? Will you show me how to use a sword, so I can help in the defence? My father — my real father that is — was a knight, you know.”
Sir Gaidrach laughed. “You are so full of questions. I don't really know what the beastmen want, and I don't trust them to leave the countryside untouched, but I'm not the one in charge, and besides, others know better.”
The knight sized Tam up. “So you want to learn to fight with a sword, eh? Well, you do look like you have pretty strong arms. Let's see what you can do. Come over here.”
Gaidrach led him over to a clear area on the edge of the yard, away from most of the pavilions on the opposite end from the temple. On the way there he found an unused support pole and snapped it in half to produce two sword-length sticks. He handed Tam one of them.
The session went something like this:
“Get into a guard position. No, no, like this. Now, defend yourself. [Sigh]. Okay, try swinging your weapon. No, no. Swing it like you mean it. Hey, watch it! Okay, stop. This is how you swing a sword. Keep your legs rooted, arm relaxed, and just swing like this. Now you try it. Good. Keep practicing. Here, take this stick too, you need some more weight to play with. Swing at this bush over here, you need a target to practice on. Now keep on practicing. Just keep practicing, it takes time. Don't stop until you're too tired to move.
“Boy, I wish I was better at teaching this stuff....” Leaving him with that, Gaidrach headed back toward the group.
After a few minutes of beating on the bush, Tam was chased away by a hierophant, who apparently had some interest in the well-being of the plant. There were some onlookers to the affair, who seem to be amused.
Tam suddenly felt rather awkward, and thought he was probably blushing too.
“Um ... greetings fair ladies,” he said and attempted a courtly bow. “My name is Tamhan of Sioncarwood, squire to Sir Ennemath. Sir Gaidrach has been teaching me the knightly art of combat.” He waved the wooden sword in what he hoped was an impressive fashion. The two women exchanged an amused glance.
“So you're the brave hero Gaidrach has told us about,” said a young woman whom Tam recognized as Hirtha, Gaid's sister. “You did a fine job on that bush.”
“That hierophant was certainly worried,” said Ansia, the younger sister of Sir Ennemath's wife.
“You know, you don't look very bold wearing that,” said Hirtha, indicating Tam's peasant garb.
“We can ask the hierophants if they have a spare set of robes,” said Ansia.
“No,” Hirtha said, thinking. “What we need here is something a hero would wear, with bright colors so that he stands out.”
“I'll bet the baron has an extra set of clothes,” suggested Ansia.
“Too bad he'd never let us borrow them.”
“Oh I don't know,” said Ansia, with a devious look in her eye. “Brosian's busy planning in his pavilion so he'd never notice. And I know how to get what I want. I'll be right back.”
Alone with Hirtha, Tam coughed and shuffled his feet. Trying to sound educated, he asked, “So, tell me. Hast thou seen anything strange these past few days?”
“Why yes,” replied Hirtha. “The Lady Sionna coming down with a mysterious illness (they say it's due to some evil influence), a gold coin disappearing in thin air, murders on the roadside, the Grand Hierophant of the Order of Law suddenly visiting the barony on a special mission, and a boy fiercely swinging a stick at a bush ... that's all pretty strange to me! Why, if I were more than a simple lady-in-waiting I would imagine something were going on. As it is, I always imagine something is going on. Keeps me from getting bored.”
Hirtha glanced toward the approaching figure of Ansia, who had a triumphant look on her face. Hirtha turned back to Tam.
“If you really want to hear everything, you should talk to Dalian, the gatekeeper. His ears are as big as wind sails. But let's see what Ansia has found for you.”
Ansia held up a blue-and-white tabard. “Here we are, baronial colors. You can't be a hero without looking like one, you know.” She handed Tam the garment and urged him to put it on.
“Where did you get it from?” asked Hirtha. “It looks like one of Sir Athrun's.”
Ansia nodded. “As he's the marshall, he can conscript anyone he wants. All he has to do is hand out a stick and tabard. He's got a bunch of these.”
The two girls helped Tam with the garment and fussed about him to make sure it fit properly. They stood back to admire their handiwork.
“Now you fit in,” said Hirtha. She glanced at the crowd. “It's getting late — let's go find a group to sit with so we can watch Glannoch entertain us.”
The morning of the Cro'ach of Glant.
Mordraith, sleeping on the cold floor of the temple, was awakened by a hierophant and told to join the group outside. Tamhan rose from a cozy spot in lord Orchbroe's pavilion. Before breakfast was served, everyone was normally expected to attend the morning rites, but they were called off when a hierophant (whom Mordraith recognized as Wolligrast) announced that the Grand Hierophant had cancelled the morning rites. In fact, all throughout breakfast, none of the top-ranking hierophants were available.
“They must be planning something big,” said Sir Athrun, with a mouthful of bread.
“Or something,” grunted Orchbroe, sucking on his teeth.
Many of the knights from Dethrall's entourage were more visible this day, taking part in the morning activities. One of them directed a couple of peasants to load a wagon with sacks. The peasants took the wagon to the gate and left. The knight disappeared into the crowd.
For the first hour or two of the morning, everyone was left waiting expectantly. Some tried to engage in idle activities to pass the time.
Finally, Seorn, the white-haired bodyguard of Dethrall, emerged from the gatehouse with a number of low-ranking hierophants. He was followed by the Grand Hierophant and another man, apparently a prelector from another monastery. There was still no sign of Worhell or Cludaen, but no one really noticed, since the Grand Hierophant was leading the rituals that day.
After a few words commemorating the heroic deeds of Crohelm and noting that this day of each month was in honor of him, Dethrall glowed with excitement.
“I have said that I would be making an announcement today, something that we have been waiting for for years. We have been working hard this morning (some are still working, I'm afraid), praying upon the sacred relics in the Tower of Books, performing our mysteries, and chanting words of power. You see, the stars tell all, the ancient scrolls speak as come to restore order to the kingdom!”
Dethrall raised his arms up, then gestured toward the sky in the direction of the Tower.
“Behold, for he has returned to us!”
A stream of light appeared in the sky and struck a place on the other side of the wall. Then a red figure bathed in a light rivalling the sun rose up, floated to a position over the crowd, then descended gradually to the center of the cluster of pavilions.
“Crohelm!” shouted the Grand Hierophant. “Bow in obeisance, you fools! You are in the presence of a god!”
Many did so, but others did not. Particularly Gaidrach, who was seething with rage. Tamhan also recognized the face of the red god. It bore a remarkable resemblance to ...
“Bruehan!” spat Gaidrach. “It is a trick! This is no god!”
Gaidrach, raging, drew his sword and rushed the red warrior, but `Crohelm' swiped at him with his mace. Gaidrach dropped like a stone. Orchbroe immediately attempted to go to the aid of his son but was held back by Sir Athrun.
`Crohelm' stared momentarily at the knight at his feet, as if somewhat surprised. But this passed quickly and he said: “Foolish mortal. Never question the power of the gods. Okay folks, knights and ladies. I'm assuming control of this barony. Any objections Baron Brosian?”
Mordraith gaped in utter astonishment when Crohelm appeared. Speechless he saw the god fell his brother with a single blow and arrogantly take control of the barony. Was this the god who spoke in his mind, was this the face of a god? Then his brother's shout registered ... Bruehan? The baron seemed surprised, but said nothing. (A gesture from Dethrall was all it took to silence him).
“I didn't think so. Now listen. The beastmen pose no threat to us, now that I am here. We will gather our army, seek them out, and destroy them. Riudsech will be the safest place in the kingdom.”
Shock spread a silent wave through the crowd of knights and ladies as the previous events transpired. Sir Athrun held Orchbroe at bay with a look of caution. Gazing upon the still form of Gaidrach, Mordraith pushed his way through the crowd, approaching Crohelm on a gamble.
He sank to one knee and bowed his head. “Lord, you know me. Let me see to my brother.” In fear he awaited the blow.
The red warrior frowned, obviously upset by this diversion.
“You're his brother, eh? Insolence runs in the family. Perhaps you are not as foolish as he. But as I have already demonstrated my might here today, I will now demonstrate my compassion.” With an arrogant wave of his hand, “You may take him away.” He turned and swaggered off in the direction of the Grand Hierophant. A certain level of tension broke in the crowd; murmurs and cries rose up suddenly but Mordraith was hardly aware of them.
The body of Gaidrach lay very still in the grass. He appeared to have been killed instantly by the blow. Hirtha broke away from the crowd and came running, screaming Gaidrach's name. She moved into Mordraith's field of vision and fell to her knees. She shook the body as if trying to wake him up.
“Gaidrach!” she cried and shook him and cried again. After a few hopeless tries she gave up. Without looking at Mordraith, she simply called his name. Her voice was quavering and full of pain. Very soon Mordraith find his arms full of a sobbing, shaking little sister. She was a mess.
Other people start gathering around, until it gets so crowded and noisy that Athrun had to ward them off.
Despair wracked Mordraith's soul. In a vain effort to hold back the sudden all-pervasive pain he crushed his sister in his arms seeking comfort where none was to be found. He kissed her, stroked her hair, whispered her name in her ear as their tears mix on our cheeks. When Father takes his body I reach out a hand to touch the broken form of my brother and shout his name in accusation at the sky.
“May the gods show mercy,” said Ansia, who for once seemed honestly distressed. “Hirtha, Hirtha, by the gods.”
Ansia unspokenly offered to relieve Mordraith of the duty of comforting Hirtha when he was ready.
Mordraith rose from his kneeling position, Hirtha in his arms and rejected Ansia's presence with a rough shove. “Don't invoke the gods, one of them did this.” Cruelly. Hirtha was all he had left now, no one would take her away from him. Ever. She was his. It was all that mattered at that moment.
Meanwhile, Orchbroe picked up the corpse of his oldest son. He seemed uncertain what to do with it. Perhaps he simply wished to carry it. He finally headed in the direction of his pavilion, where Bidra waited.
Mordraith turned his back on the world around him and watched as Gaidrach was carried in their father's arms to the family pavilion. Mordraith followed with his sister in his arms, holding her tight, her light body against his, her head on his shoulder. The wrenching sound of her loss in his ears, the salt taste of her desolation on his lips, the faint fragrance of her hair in his nose.
Something intruded. Somewhere in the midst of all this Tamhan edged up beside Mordraith. “I don't know anything about magic, but my guess is this is just some display set up to make people follow Bruehan and the Grand Heirophant. What do you suggest we do?”
In uncontrollable rage Mordraith shouted in his face. “What the fuck do I care, my brother was just murdered in cold blood!”
Violently Mordraith began to shoulder Tam away but after seeing the shock on the peasant's face, he relented. Another worry that had been in the back of his mind as soon as the murderer turned up made him pause a second. “Try to find Prelector Cludaen and bring him to our pavilion if possible, secretly.”