Friday, 24 October 2014

The Sun Shard - Prologue

 Early Winter…
Dayvin Claypit, Gesith of the Gewichas, shivered under his bearskin cloak, his aging bones feeling the cold as a light flurry of snowflakes fluttered in the air like fine, downy feathers. The horse’s hooves clattered on the stones of the Great North Road. He looked northwest, his eyes cast over the undulating hills towards the distant Hailthorn mountains; their summits hidden under the thickening, snow heavy clouds. He hoped his summons with the Earl wouldn’t take too long as he didn’t relish returning home in the teeth of a snow storm. Winter was fast approaching, yet spring would be lacking in its usual feelings of hope and renewal. He returned to looking straight ahead; before him stood the fortified town of Oakenbridge, capital of the Gewichas.

The town straddled the deep chasm cut by the Tusk River cascading from the Hailthorns. It took its name from the wondrous, living bridge formed by four massive and ancient oaks, two each end; their branches arched and intertwined, strengthened with hoops of bronze and steel. Around each end of the bridge, behind a tall palisade were the houses and shops of the inhabitants of Oakenbridge.

Dayvin was greeted by guards at the eastern gate, who let him through without question. Gesith Claypit had served in the Earl’s service for longer years than he cared to remember. He took the familiar road through the town to the Earl’s residence. Under the Eastern tree, joined to appear as it almost grown from it, was the great hall and palace of Earl Stormhelm. It was part of the ancient tree; the entrance went through an enormous barbican formed from a hollowed root. It was adjoined by rooms of brick and timber. Each year another course of bricks were added as the tree grew ever bigger. The difference in size was noted by Dayvin, as he swung out of the saddle.

Out of the gateway a figure stalked through the slush and mud to greet him, with an almost catlike grace. “Greetings Dayvin, it is good to see you.”

Dayvin turned and smiled upon hearing the voice of his old comrade, the Earl’s sword master. “Clessor, my friend, it has been too long.” Both men grabbed each other’s forearms in greeting, before giving each other a bear hug.

Clessor drew back and regarded his old comrade. “You look well. How long has it been since you left the hearth troop?”

“It’s been around five years since I swapped the sword for the plough and left the O‘bridge.”
“Has it really been that long? And the family; are they all well?”

Dayvin’s face dropped, his ready smile gone. “They are well, Clessor, but…”

The Sword Master nodded in understanding. “Your eldest son, Jonas has been drawn for next year’s muster, hasn’t he? I heard it was the case. What of your daughter, Tamzine? I remember her as a tomboy, insisting on learning sword play from me!”

“Jonas and many other sons of the Gewichas,” Dayvin answered sagely, “Tamzine is well, she still trades some sword strokes with me, now and again. What is the Earl’s summons about Clessor, do you know?”

Clessor patted his friend on the back. “He will tell you soon enough. Come, let’s go see him. He has a warm fire and mulled cider. Another year gone and another winter comes, eh?” He said, squinting up at the swirling snow.

The two friends walked through the gateway into the great hollow wood passage, the gates shut behind them against the winter’s onset. Inside the living passage all was warm. Sacred symbols were drawn on the inside. Lanterns were lit but placed on the floor so as not to scorch the sacred wood. Steps were cut up into the hollow trunk to living quarters high above the arch formed by the two eastern trees. Clessor led his friend through a guarded gateway to the right. Here was the great hall part tree part building. A great fire burned in the central fire pit, over which pots of bubbling stew were being tended. Dayvin saw the figure of the Earl warming his hands, staring into the fire, his great grey wolf cloak around his shoulders.

“Gesith Claypit is here, my Lord.” Clessor announced as the two friends drew near.

The Earl turned, his face looked more drawn, lined and world weary than Dayvin remembered; his once blonde hair was now almost as white as snow.

“My Lord.” Dayvin said, kneeling before his Earl.

Earl Stormhelm reached down and took Dayvin’s shoulders, drawing him back up in a standing position. “Welcome back to Oakenbridge, Gesith Claypit… you look older than I remember; I don’t want you hurting those aged knees!” The Earl’s face began to crack a smile and he drew Dayvin into an embrace. “It is good to see you loyal friend. What has kept you from Oakenbridge?”

Dayvin smiled back. “The usual, my Lord. Raising crops and children”

Lord Stormhelm smiled sadly. “Ah yes children, they make us don’t they? It wasn’t so long ago that your daughter and mine played together in the branches of this very tree.” As he spoke he filled a mug of hot, spiced cider and passed it to Dayvin.

“I remember it well, my Lord.” Dayvin said, nodding his thanks.

“Our children were free of care, Dayvin. Alas that is not the fate of their fathers,” the Earl said, filling two more mugs and passing one to Clessor, “Come sit with me ,both of you, that we may talk.”

The Earl led the way to a small alcove and parked himself upon a stool, bidding the other two to do likewise. The Earl took a long draught of his cider before wiping his hand across his mouth.

“Well my friends, next year the Empire comes to take its muster, all lots have been drawn. Your son is to be called to the banners, I hear Dayvin.”

“Jonas, yes his name has been drawn. His mother and I worry greatly. All the talk is of Acaross again. Does Taleel plan another campaign on southern shores?”

The Earl nodded. “When I answered the Dominar’s summons in spring, to be given his demands, it was the talk on the streets of Northport. But be hopeful Dayvin; you and Clessor served under the banners ten years ago and you both came home.”

Dayvin gave a knowing sideways glance to Clessor. “We were fortunate my Lord; both Dayvin and I, being seasoned warriors, served as marines in the fleet. In the panic of the evacuation from Tahlinjin many auxiliaries were sacrificed to make space for the Imperial regulars on whatever ships were still available after the disaster.”

Clessor saw the Earl’s face drop and quickly interjected. “The Empire of Taleel is nothing but stubbornly thorough; if they plan to attack Acaross once more they will have learnt from their mistakes at the Straits of Tahlinjin. We Summerlanders, now Imperial subjects in their Northern Holdings, know this all too well.”

The Earl nodded but had a faraway look in his eyes. “That we do, that we do…” His meditation ended, his eyes looked deep into those of his companions. “I can tell you friends that the demands I received from this Dominar Sligo appalled me. The tributes in foodstuffs we have to yield next year are bad enough to cause real hardship next winter and their hunger for young men for their army is insatiable… and not just young men.”

Dayvin looked over his mug. “What do you mean, Lord?”

The Earl’s hands tightened around the handle of his mug and his voice trembled slightly with anger. “This… Sligo requires a tribute of young women too, and not just the flowers of the Gewichas, but also of the Turanesci, the Fraisons, the Irminsulus and others; all to serve in his household.”

“Serve? In his household?” Dayvin said, realising the implication, “The loathsome Taleeli dog!”

“Indeed, Dayvin, all the Summerlander delegations protested vehemently. We were told in no uncertain terms that defiance would lead to our destruction. The Empire has a large force gathering at Northport with which to impose its will and gather tribute and levies. As an instigator of the protest I was singled out and must part with my most precious possession; my daughter is to be held by the Dominar as a hostage…”

Dayvin looked dumbfounded. “Keeli?  He is demanding Keeli, but what of the treaties between your house and Taleel?”

The Earl sighed. “I was assured that Keeli’s honour as an Earl’s daughter would be respected, but…” He looked up again with a fierce look in his eyes. “I know this manner of man that is called Sligo, he is a lecherous whoremonger: I trust him not. The thought of this toad of a man pawing our womenfolk, and my Keeli, is too much to bear.”

Dayvin laid his hand on his sword hilt. “My lord, I am your loyal Gesith, my sword is forever yours to command. If you plan a revolt, our destruction matters not. I will sacrifice my life and all I have for the honour of the Gewichas.”

The Earl smiled at Dayvin in appreciation and pride but he had tears in his eyes. “I will not cause the destruction of my people if I can help it, but the request I have for you is a terrible thing, especially as your son has been selected for the muster. I am ashamed to ask it of you.”

“My Lord?” Dayvin looked confused, unused to seeing the Earl looking so humbled. He felt Clessor rest his hand on his arm and turned towards his old friend.

Clessor spoke barely above a whisper. “What we ask of you Dayvin is this, that Tamzine accompany her old friend Keeli to Northport to act in secret as a guardian for our Lord’s daughter.”

“Guardian?” Dayvin looked at the floor. He raised his mug with trembling hands and drank deeply as he contemplated the Earl’s request.

Clessor continued. “As I said when you arrived I remember Tamzine having no small skill with a sword. I take it she still does?”

“Indeed,” Dayvin nodded, “She will best me, one of these days.”

“If agreed, I will train her myself,” Clessor said, “In all manner of weapons and also unarmed combat. She will best you, and me, when I am done with her. She will be our eyes in the Dominar’s household and an agent of the Earl’s vengeance if required.”

The Earl reached over to his Gesith. “Please Dayvin, consider this. I will be in your family’s debt, a debt I can never hope to repay.”

Dayvin had tears in his eyes seeing his Lord’s humility. “Please my Lord, there will never be a debt, you are my liege. All that I, and my family, have is because of you. My wife will shed tears afresh but the decision is Tamzine’s to make.”

“Will she say yes do you think?”

Dayvin smiled sadly. “I’ve long known Tamzine is more shieldmaiden than wife and mother; the local boys who have tried their luck bear blackeyes from her tender touch. She yearns for adventure, more so than Jonas if the truth be told. Going to Northport with her old friend Keeli? I can’t see her saying no…”

“Thank you Dayvin,” the Earl said solemnly, “You don’t want my debt but you will have it anyway, I will sleep easier knowing Keeli will have a friend beside her.”

Dayvin turned to Clessor. “You will train her well?”

“You may count on it,” the Sword master smiled fiercely; “When I am done she will be lethal.”

** This is a prologue I've just written for The Sun Shard, currently available  at Amazon. Oh and keep your eyes out for Book 2 - The Dead Gods - coming soon. ***

No comments:

Post a Comment