This is a continuation of the serial The Legacy, presented by Nerd Union. You can find the previous installments at this link, or on our Fiction Friday page.
Part VI. “Honor”
The smell of salt riding the wind from the sea is normally what woke him, but not this morning. This morning it was the shrill squawk of a bird. It caused him to jolt off the feather bed and reach for the dagger underneath his pillow in one swift motion. The large gull stood on top of his wardrobe, with it’s waddling ass sticking off the side. A black and white speckled shit was daubed over the scabbard of his sword, which lay on it’s stand atop his stone hewn shelf adjacent to the wardrobe. In his long years in Unidor, Berethor had loved the sound and sight of seagulls, only now did he understand why the locals hated them so much. He threw the dagger at the bird, which briskly fluttered back out the high windows in his room. The dagger clattered against the wall and then skidded off the top of the wardrobe only to land on the wooden floor with a rattle.
It was a decent throw, he had to admit. The ceiling of his room was at least ten feet high, and the distance from his bed, which lay just underneath the two windows, was seven or eight feet away from the wardrobe on the far wall. Most days he wished the windows were low to the ground that way he could see anything outside other than the clouds in the bright blue sky, but he understood why the windows were so high up and barely the width and height of a man’s chest. It kept most of the gulls out, plus in a tower fortress it’s ideal for keeping projectiles out as well.
“No going back to sleep now,” Berethor croaked as he rubbed the crud out of his eyes with his fingers. He walked across the wooden floor, in nothing but loose fitting breeches, his joints in his legs and back popping from years of hard use. He looked at his sword for a long moment before picking it up. It was nearly three and a half feet long from pommel to point. It’s scabbard and grip were wrapped in a weathered and somewhat torn leather that was dyed white, though it had yellowed in the intervening years since Berethor had restored it. He took a nearby cloth and wiped the bird droppings off. This was his prized possession after all, his sole remaining charge in the whole world, and he’d be damned before he let it fall too.
How long had it been since he drew this blade in earnest? It had to have been at least three, maybe four years, since the charge at Rithgar’s Keep. The Berin had crossed the Zanari River, in their first successful push into the Incantian, and he was there to meet them with two thousand head of cavalry. The infantry contingent under General Dossimir broke, and only Berethor’s mad charge into the breach was able to rally them. After all, the sight of the last Paladin charging into the fray has that affect on people. That was what Sir Merek Undilay had always taught him, and it had proven to be true, the sight of a Paladin in battle is the greatest of balms to the brokenhearted, and a routing cry to the enemy. Unfortunately for Berethor, the Berin don’t break.
Berethor moved to his wardrobe. Inside there were a few clothes, all of which began to seem more haggard and threadbare with each passing day. He slipped on a pair of leather pants, black knee high boots, and a buff coat the sun had bleached white. Clasped about his waist was his sword belt, and through it’s harness he donned his sword. All of it smelt like sweat. A good bath would have done him good for his mood, but there was no time for it now. He’d overslept and needed to tour the battlements at the city’s docks. As he made his way to the door, there was a knock.
“Master Berethor, are you awake?” It was the croning voice of Meriweather, the council messenger. He never understood why they gave such an important job to someone whose voice was so grating.
“Yes! Come in!” He shouted as he tightened the last knot on his coat.
Meriweather was a slight man with a thin frame and eyes that were too large for his head. “The council requests your presence in their chamber immediately.”
“Did they say what about? I need to make my way to the docks shortly.”
“It regards the current status of the docks, Master Berethor,” Meriweather grated, with a slight bow as he pointed at the open door.
“And what status would that be?” Berethor asked, his eyes narrowed.
“It is currently in enemy hands.”
Berethor pushed through the solid adamantine doors into the council chambers of the ruling Magi of Unidor. When he first arrived, all those years ago, he was astounded by these large metal doors. He had never seen more than three pounds of the stuff in one place before. The people of Unidor were the only ones in the whole world who could work the stuff. Now, seeing it day by day, the wonder had worn off, much like wonder seems to now a days. Past the door was an antechamber, and adorning its walls were the banners of the seven great houses of Unidor, from which each of these men hailed. At one point in time Unidor’s council seats had been doled out based on merit, but over several thousand years the seats had become static, all except for the Archmage, the king if you will, who was elected from amongst their number. In between the banners were unlit sconces mounted to the stone walls. In the main chamber of the room a red carpet laid upon the wooden floor, the fringe of the carpet a gleaming silver. Unlike every other room in the tower, the chamber was open with a window nearly three feet tall and wrapped about the majority of the room. In Anaroth there would have been a large round table for everyone to lounge around and discuss matters of state. In Unidor this was not the proper manner. The Unidorians believed that important matters ought to be discussed upright, as sitting down would promote laziness. Yet after years of being party to this practice he thought it only served to keep meetings short, which at his age, was not the worst thing in the world.
As he burst in, the wizards were scattered about the room. Together in one clump were three of the youngest members of the council: Merith of house Rith, Gotar of House Tar, and Marakeln of House Keln. By himself, leaning against the window was the slim figure of Invalar, leader of House Valar, the newest of the reigning houses, but he was not the youngest member of the council. The old guard stood in between the two groups from where Berethor stood, with their backs to the window. Their were Phalanx, leader of the Anx, the richest of the seven houses. Beside him stood the oldest of the council members, and quite easily the most revered of them all. He was an ancient figure of once towering height, but with age had shrunk in stature. He was Eliras, leader of House Ras, one of the founding houses of Unidor. The last of their number was the Archmage, Phisun, first of his name.
Aside from the visible difference in age, one could detect a generational divide between the two groups. The younger wizards wore clothes more in step with modern sensibilities, as in it may have been in fashion less than a thousand years ago. The three eldest wizards looked like they came straight out of one of the old stories his nanny used to tell so many years ago. They had long robes that drug against the ground, each one wearing loose fitting tunics that could hardly be seen underneath the billowing arms and fronts of their robes. The one fashion they all had in common were their staves. Each one, regardless of the material it was made of, were marked with runes. They were of the same cut and character as the ones in the groove of his sword, after all Marakeln was the distant granddaughter of the wizard who had crafted it.
As he brushed past the door he walked through the antechamber and stopped at the lip of the meeting chamber. He placed his closed right fist on his chest and bowed low.
“My lords and lady, how may I be of service?” Berethor wanted to scream. He wanted to have barged through those doors and start yelling, What the hell is going on? Why was I not woken up six hours ago when the attack began, but he knew better. He was trained better than that. He was not just a knight, but a Paladin Knight of Anaroth, and that still meant something. He would not tarnish the image of his order by letting loose the bases parts of his nature, nor would he treat people in authority without the proper respect that their office and breeding deserved. He would expect no less from anyone below him.
Eliras gave a soft smile, as if he could sense the mass of feeling boiling underneath Berethor’s carefully practices etiquette. Eliras wore a dark blue robe with a tan tunic underneath. His hair was long and grey, and his face was lined with ancient wrinkles, but he had warm eyes, and a deep soothing voice. He looked to be no more than twenty or thirty years older than Berethor, but he knew better.
“Master Berethor,” Eliras began, leaning on his solid black staff, “In case you have not heard already, the docks were taken last night.”
“I have been informed, my lord,” Berethor replied. “Why was I not made aware until now?”
“Because you were not needed.” The words came from behind him, but he knew the voice. As if the sharp pitch of his voice weren’t enough of an indicator, the clank of his armor gave the rest away. Berethor turned about to see General Markot Dossimir stride through the antechamber. He was a short man who had managed to squeeze his great heft into a suit of tight plate armor. It gleamed from lack of use. He carried in his left hand his helm, an open faced hat that left a large enough hole for a blade the size of dinner plate. The suit was inlaid with designs in gold, across his chest, and down his arms, and on the crown of his helm. All of them were in the shape of flames leading to a design in his chest of a great dragon. To the uninitiated, it would seem a great sight, but in truth it was armor meant more for theatre than battle. The bald pate on his head seemed almost to shine more than his armor due to the beads of sweat that he’d earned from walking up so many steps to get to the Chamber of Meeting.
“I am the commander of the city guard,” Berethor began before being cut off by Dossimir.
“And I am the Grand Marshall of Unidor’s armies.” He intoned again, “You were not needed.”
It took all Berethor had to maintain a veneer of civility. “I came to Unidor to fight battles, not to sleep through them. Those were my men responsible for guarding the docks. I should have been informed sooner.”
“You were informed when we thought prudent,” came Archmage Phisun’s calm baritone. That was the end of the discussion as far as any of the magi were concerned. Berethor mentally gritted his teeth. It was more than the principle of the thing, it was the insult of it all. Those were his men at the docks. He had trained them, ate with them, shed blood with them. He should have known that they were dying while he slept. Instead, he was cut out, again, as he always was.
“Marshall, please,” Eliras began, “give us your report.”
Dossimir gave his salute and bowed. As he came up he stifled a cough in his hand. “Pardon me, my lords. The docks have been lost. It appears that a detachment of troops, roughly two thousand strong, came in under cover of darkness using their steamships. Once disembarked they slaughtered the garrison and took up defensive positions around the perimeter.”
Berethor moved to the window where mounted on the edge of the stone was an eyeglass. He peered through the end and swiveled it toward the docks. To describe the area merely as a dock did not quite grasp the magnitude of the complex. The docks could more accurately have been described as Old Town, as it was the heart of the old city, before the new sprawling mass of buildings had been constructed around the central spire of the new city, in which he now stood. The docks were built on the murky water of the Bay of Herald, surrounded by a bulwark of ancient defenses. There was an outer wall, built with heavy stones as wide as a carriage and as thick as them too. Each one was plastered together with mortar and crowned with crenellations and towers, each one sporting a heavy ballista. Behind the walls, which sat on three sides against the coast, and whose walls tapered into the sea, were numerous old homes terraced and jammed one on top of the other, each with roofs that seemed to connect to the other they were so packed together. These homes then stopped abruptly at the inner wall of the old city, which were taller, but thinner, and crowned with a keep sitting left of center. This in older times had served as the seat of government, but now was the headquarters of the navy, a navy which had been destroyed as of a year ago. Behind those walls was the sprawling naval complex. Half of it was reserved for naval shipwrights and docks, the other was open to merchants of all nations. When he had arrived ten years ago, there was an ever steady stream of ships being packed into port, with a line of them leading past the breakers, and beyond the horizon. Now, they were only filled with four of Mazaroth’s new ships, each one painted blacker than night and featuring no sails at all.
What had the world come to while he slept?
Walking about the parapets of the inner and outer walls he could see soldiers. They wore steel plate, painted black to obscure their figure at night, and now cast them as dark shadows in the light of day. There most striking feature, however, was that they were men.
“They are men,” Berethor spoke with the words with a small bit of shock.
“It appears so,” Dossimir replied quite brusquely.
Mazaroth had collected a diverse military with varying types of units, some specializing in quick raids, others on bloody campaigns, and some in sieges. Men meant he was building.
“Mazaroth is establishing a beachhead,” Berethor spoke, letting his thoughts form words.
Dossimir nodded coolly, “I would have to concur with Master Berethor’s opinion. The Dark Lord is no doubt securing his position in order to bring in troops behind our lines. By doing so he will force us to give ground on the Incantian and draw ourselves into Unidor proper. By doing that he will then free up his main force for a direct assault on our position.”
Dossimir was a pompous, arrogant, vain man who had a little glory early in life inflate his ego to a grand scale. He was the type of commander who lorded himself above his men. He was the type of man who no matter others skill or experience, they could never be equals with him. He was a poor swordsman, a worse horseman, and couldn’t hit a target at ten yards with an arrow. He was also a burden to any horse that might have the constitution and strength to carry his great weight, but there was one thing Dossimir did know, and that was the business of war. He had spent his whole life studying the campaigns of Gorith and Herald. He knew how to conduct war at great distances and how to place soldiers on a battlefield in order to carry the day. He even knew what types of arrowhead and blade were best to penetrate the armor of his enemy. He knew his business, and if nothing else, Berethor had to respect that. Dossimir had as firm a grip on strategy as anyone else in the room, and his opinion could count as law in this regard. As sure as the tide, Mazaroth was going to force a retreat on the Incantian.
Invalar moved from the window. He was a tall man, gaunt in his face with bright eyes which brimmed with energy. He looked to be around forty years old with brown hair trimmed close to his scalp and a equally close kempt beard. He wore a blue tunic with silver fringe and a navy colored cape that was clasped together with a silver chain. The center of the chain was a eagle, whose eyes were dark rubies.
“Is this our only prospect, or do we have other options?”
The general bobbled his head for a moment as he thought, “We could do as he wishes and pull back our forces in preparation for an assault on the docks, but if we do that we will loose Fort Callwood, Castle Maulden, and what remains of Greiville. If we do not pull back he will be able to land more troops and launch sorties on our walls with impunity. Eventually he will be able to construct siege engines and destroy our walls or the parts of the city that lay behind them.”
“Can you make an assault on the docks and dislodge their forces?” Marakeln was the one to speak up this time.
“Unfortunately, I do not have enough men to retake the docks at this time, otherwise I should have dislodged their forces this morning.”
“Then we should seek a truce while there’s still time,” Invalar spoke. In Anaroth these words would have meant execution for treason. Surrender and truce were words that were never spoken, even when the men of Voulkahn burned the first city of Anaroth in the black days when the Oncalla overtook the land, surrender was not an option. King Neun X scattered his forces and made the forests of his dominion his allies. The very land itself was said to hate the enemy in those days. They were said to have fought to the last man, surrender was that far from their hearts, but this was Unidor, not Anaroth. They were a nation of schemers, they were the masters of delay as much as they were of wizardry. Truce was just another tool in their chest designed to keep their lands, and lives, intact.
Phisun seemed to consider Invalar’s words, and stroked the tip of his lengthy beard as he did so, the white strings of hair weaving in and out of his grasp.
Invalar pressed forward. “Mazaroth doesn’t care about conquest, he only desires that we bend the knee. He wants tribute, most likely some land, and some tacit obedience. We will give him these things and then he will leave us alone. Then our trade shall return and our lands will heal. It’s time to stop this bleeding.”
Marakeln nodded in agreement, “We could broker the same deal as Cragor.”
“Yes,” Invalar replied. “In Cragor the kingdom has remained nearly intact and at peace.”
“Nearly?” Phisun finally bellowed. “By nearly you mean that he has only claimed their gold mines as his own. By peace you mean he has stationed his army in the capital and written a constitution for their people. By tribute you mean that he bleeds their country dry by shipping their sons to his army and their food to his quartermasters. That is not a peace I can live with.” He locked a icy glare on Invalar.
“A peace where we can live is better than a war we cannot win. We have all seen how Mazaroth treats those he vanquishes.” Invalar snapped back with surety. Berethor had been at the Battle of the High Pass. He had been the general of that last grand defeat. For seven days he had watched as the Berin decimated his lines and for seven days he watched his men beat back their enemy. Then the cavalry came from up high. Mazaroth new the ground as well as Berethor did, but never in his life did he think a regiment of cavalry could be marched through those rocks and trees above the pass, much less charge down upon them on that broken ground, but they had anyway. That was the moment the battle was over. That was the moment he saw every hope melt away, as he knew there was hardly a token force reserved in Anaroth for the wave that was about to fall on them. Mazaroth knew the secret ways in anyway, that was one of the secrets you were trusted with as a Paladin Knight.
Eliras had sat largely silent during the whole of the meeting, with his interest seeming to dart between the apparent cleanliness of his nails, or the sight of birds cawing in the distance. It was only with the loudest of coughs that the aged wizard inserted himself into the conversation. It was a wet, gurgling cough that came from deep in the chest. He seemed to nearly stumble over as he did it, but managed to catch his balance on his staff.
“Ah, yes,” he spoke, his voice as deep as his mane of hair was white. “I do believe I might have a solution.”
“Go on,” continued Phisun, his glare remaining ever leveled at Invalar.
“We should parley with Mazaroth, or at least General Alberton, to discuss a possible truce, but peace will not be our ultimate aim.” Eliras turned his ancient face toward Dossimir. “General, how long would it take for you to pull most of your forces to the city?”
“I would say around one week.”
“Good. Then during our parley you will pull back to the city proper and oust our new guests. By the time his scouts report the movement of our troops the conference shall be over and our forces on their way back to the front.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Dossimir interjected, “but how shall I mask my force’s withdraw? It would only take one good scout a couple of days to report back to Alberton that we’ve moved the bulk of our forces.”
“This is the City of Magi, my boy!” Eliras chuckled. “We have the power to do most anything.”
The power of trickery and deceit. There were times Berethor regretted coming to Unidor. He wished most days that he’d never seen her white walls and her cobbled streets stretching out for miles in every direction, but where would he go? There was no place for him in the world. He was not just a refugee, but a man with more enemies than could be counted. There was no place he could go where they wouldn’t put him through some kind of trial, some flavor of justice. From Voulkahn to Cragor, from Drowla to Anaroth, even in the shattered land of the Dwarves there was no place for him, no home to call his own. All that was left was a shadow of a place in his memory, the place that had once been Anaroth. Now he was here, surrounded by liars who would use every trick in their bag to preserve what was left of their way of life, and he would do everything in his power to help them. If Sir Undilay could see him he would be ashamed, his star student and eventual successor reduced to being a city guard captain, and one who kept company with schemers no less. In the end, Berethor tried not to care much. Undilay was dead, and so was the king he and the Order were sworn to protect. All the honor in the world doesn’t mean much when your dead.