Every journey is filled with unforseen
and unanticipated perils.
Make no plans which cannot be altered
or discarded completely
If the gods plan divine mischief.
-From the Book of St. Alban-
“Master, what of Jubal and his family? Cannot something be done to save them?”
The voice was the quiet whisper of concern from an elderly woman who approached timidly as I stood quietly talking to Bosso and Hanna.
“Jasmine, all will be well,” the tall rail of a man said gently, placing a hand on the frail shoulder of the old and bent woman. “Trust in Shin’zin. He will not forget Jubal and his wife and child in their time of need.”
Tears welled up in the old woman’s eyes as she nodded silently and turned to hobble back to her space in the crowded house. She said nothing but her eyes spoke in volumes. She believed in Shin’zin. She was a gentle soul who wished for, like these converts who stood with us, a better world for her and her loved ones. But her eyes said she had resigned herself to grieve over the loss of those who were about to be burned as heretics. I saw her grief and sorrow as she moved painfully back into the crowd. I vowed to myself this old woman would not suffer needlessly.
“Why this man and his family, my friend? Why denounce him as a heretic and condemned to die?”
“Jubal has always been forceful in his animosity toward Imperial Rogaria and the Rogarian religion. He has made several enemies in Oslon because of his views.”
“Plus, this Grand Inquisitor knows many within the city believe you, or someone like you, will come to save them. He believes it will be you, the Malus Apostaste, will come because you cannot deny who you were. He believe’s that is your weakness. He plans to throw a net over you and encircle you in a web even a renowned warrior-monk such as you cannot free himself from!”
Hanno’s voice was a fierce cough of ill-suppressed anger. Anger and hatred. Color had drained from her face and she clinched her hands into fists in such a way they were nothing but orbs of straining ligaments and hard bone.
“And this old woman?” I asked, looking at her and forcing her to lift her eyes up to me.
“Jubal’s mother. She has only two sons. Of the two Jubal has been the stable force in the family. He has been the one to care for his mother and to rescue his younger brother from the various problems he gets himself into. If Jubal and his family dies, so does Jasmine.”
Yes. That I surmised. Nodding, I patted her on the arm gently and bent down so only she could hear my words.
“Find Jasmine. Take her to a safe place. Tell her Shin’zin will deliver her son and family to her later this day. This Shin’zin promises!”
Standing again I turned to look at the husband of Hanno.
“We must send everyone home, Basso. Undoubtedly the Grand Inquisitor has had someone whisper into his ear of this gathering. Swordsmen will be dispatched to capture all who are here.”
“Yes, I have thought of that, Roland. Leave it to me.”
He left our side and entered a different room of the house. Almost immediately people began moving. I saw a line of people form which snaked through the three main rooms of the ground floor and end in Hanno’s large kitchen. Curious, I looked down at the smiling face of the mistress of the house.
“Basso has always thought a time would come when Rogarians again would hunt the Bretan. Especially so since we live in Oslon and at the mouth of the Trail of Tears. So like any good Bretan he created a way to escape the pogroms. Go see for yourself.”
Once the Bretan were numerous and thriving both in the High Kanris and in the foothill country at the base of the High Kanris. But Rogarian fanaticism made following the Bretan Way a heresy. We Bretan were accused of being in league with the dragon and their dark magic. We become the hunted–the prey–in one religious pogrom after the other. Bretan monasteries in the high country were destroyed.. Thousands of Bretan followers were put to death as religious heretics. Thousands more lost their lives even though they did not profess to be Bretan but were sympathizers of those who were.
The Bretan were almost swept away in the High Kanris. Yet here in the foothill country the fanaticism of the Rogarians did not take hold as fiercely as it did in the high country. More of the Bretan lived in some semblance of peace here in foothill colonies like Oslon. Yet here in Oslon a Bretan follower constantly lived in constant wariness. Oslon lay at the base of the Trail of Tears. One of the man narrow passes which led up into the high country. A pass where caravans and small groups could traverse during the summer months. But a pass too narrow, and too dangerous, for any army to use as a route of invasion. At the entrance of the Trail of Tears high above lay the kingdom of Imperial Rogaria. Fanaticism therefore always knocked on Oslon’s gates.
I entered the kitchen and looked on with quiet satisfaction. The floor of Hanno’s kitchen was slabs of stone tightly fitted together in an intricate pattern. One of the stones was missing and the gaping hole of a tunnel was visible. I saw the flickering glimmer of torches within the tunnel as, one by one, the members of this new coven of believers slipped into the tunnel opening and disappeared.
“The tunnel winds underneath Basso’s shop and emerges in an old warehouse two blocks away. From there they will leave in ones and twos and return to their homes.”
I nodded and found myself very pleased with the husband and wife team of the Bretan faith. Pleased in that they knew the pogroms of hunting down the few remaining Bretan by the Rogarians would begin again–especially in these trying times–and they prepared for just such an event. And I was pleased in that they believed in me. Believed in my vision. Believed enough to face whatever dangers might soon arrive.
And danger came soon enough.
Just as the last convert disappeared into the tunnel the thundering hammer blows of mailed fists beating on the oak door of the house startled us all! Basso pulled the heavy stone of the tunnel opening back into place just as the sounds of the wooden door began splintering from the fierce blows.
“Basso! Hanna! At noon on this day be prepared to hurry Jubal and his family off the gallows and to a safe hiding place!”
“But how are you going to save them, warrior?” Hanno asked just as the door to their house crashed open!
They turned to look at me. But I was not to be seen. In their eyes I had simply disappeared! Stepping to one side, snug in my Cloak of Invisibility wrapped around me, I remained silent and watched as fifty or more Imperial Rogarian swordsmen wearing the purple of the Imperial crown flooded into the house with swords drawn. An officer waved men to the right and left and the sounds of men angrily opening closet doors and turning over furniture and smashing things to pieces came to our ears.
“Where are they?” the officer, a young man with long longs of brown hair growled, turning to glare at the tall man and his plump wife. “Where are the scum of Bretan filth which have hiden like rats in this house all night? Tell me!”
Systematically the swordsmen were tearing the house apart in their frenetic search for those who had been here only moments before. As I watched unseen and unsuspected while I stood in one corner of the room that Basso and his wife occupied, I saw several purple clad swordsmen move into the kitchen. Pots and pans clattered to the stone floor. As did all kinds of dishes and pottery. Soon the kitchen was a shambles. But none of the Rogarians inspected the stone floor.
A guard walked into the room and saluted the officer and informed him the house was empty except for Basso and Hanna. Angrily the young officer muttered something and then ordered his men to search the house again and to tear it apart if they had to. Glaring at husband and wife he left them standing alone in the small dining room of their abode.
For some seconds both Basso and Hanna quietly looked around the room but made no effort to move. They were searching for me. Smiling, I said nothing and made no effort to reveal my presence to them in any way.
Finally, in cautious concern, Hanno leaned toward her husband and whispered, “Do you think he is still here?”
“Shhh, woman! Do you want them to hear?”
“But . . . how . . . “
”I don’t know,” Basso whispered, frowning and looking to the left and to the right again curiously. “I have heard stories certain warrior-monks have something called a Cloak of Invisibility they use when they must hide themselves. I never thought the stories were true. But I believe I have changed my mind.”
Hanno, eyes wide but keeping silent, nodded and looked quietly to the right and left again and then in front of her and behind her. Her husband, as if coming to a conclusion, nodded his head and half turned to stare at the far wall.
“Warrior!” he hissed, loud enough for me to hear but not loud enough to attract the attention of the Rogarians. “If you can hear me, heed my words! In the attic of my shop, in the bottom of a large teak wood chest, there is a suit of chain mail new and complete! Mail not made of iron. But steel! An old Malaweian master and I have been working on this for years to create. Find it and exchange the old mail you wear with that one. It will protect you from all blows except from a crossbow bolt shot at point-blank range. Wear it, warrior. You will soon be in need of its protection!”
“What are you blabbering about, you old idiot!” the young Rogarian officer shouted from the next room angrily.
“Nothing! Nothing at all, young master!”
“Then remain silent or I’ll cut you down myself!”
Basso nodded, compressing his lips together as he wrapped an around the shoulders of his wife. The noise of the house being ripped to pieces continued to haunt my ears as I made my way silently out of the open door. Wrapped in the Cloak of Invisibility I made sure no traces of my departure could be seen in the snow and mud as I slipped around and between Rogarian warriors standing around the outer perimeter of the house. Making my way to Basso’s large blacksmith’s shop I entered silently and made my way up to the dark attic. It did not take long to find the teak wood chest. Nor did it take long to find the suit of finely woven chain mail made of the glistening silver color of hammered and polished steel. Lifting it from out of the chest I glanced down and noticed that, underneath the mail, was a freshly made cloth tunic colored in the dark Saffron yellow of a Bretan warrior-monk neatly folded and waiting to be discovered. Underneath that was the heavy white cotton padding worn underneath the mail. Removing the three separate garments I stood up, made sure no one was observing me, and then discarded my Cloak of Invisibility. Quickly I removed the old coat of mail I had been wearing for all these many months, along with the tattered and patched cloth tunic which covered it.
I slipped first into the cotton padding, soon followed the suit of mail, and then the yellow tunic. Lifting my arms up to gaze down at the new tunic and mail I found myself surprised at the amazingly lightness of the garments I wore. I had heard of chain mail made with the fine steel ringlets–thousands of them–hammered into place. I had heard steel was far stronger than iron and how much lighter it was for a warrior to wear. But I had no idea just how light it could be! Turning around several times I felt the weight hanging lightly on my shoulders and falling down my torso and I thought surely nothing this light cold protect me.
But I knew the Dragon had long mastered the manufacturing of steel mail. Only the most wealth of Dragon lords could afford it. I did not doubt the tall blacksmith’s words when he had told me he and a Malaweian master had perfected the technique of creating such light mail. Nor did I doubt the man’s words when he told me I would be soon in need of its protection. Of this I was sure. Before the sun reached its zenith high overhead I was sure this new armor would save my life countless times.
Plans change. Unforseen obstacles force us to alter our path. I came to Oslon to recruit Iberian swordsmen. Now I had to save an innocent family from the hungry fires of heretical witch hunters. Unforseen obstacles which only delayed me in accomplishing my original mission. I still had to see if I could recruit swordsmen to join our cause–a chore made more complicated with the timely arrival of Rogarian gold and silver to pay hungry warriors. With this in mind I began making my way through the snow packed streets of Oslon still draped in my Cloak of Invisibility.
Fortunately the bitter cold of the early morning air lit by a bright but cold sun kept the streets barren of any pedestrians. Twice I stopped to watch a contingent of purple-clad Rogarian swordsmen marching from one street to the next. Underneath their pointed, purple enameled helms the swordsmen looked bored and cold. From their looks I could tell they wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, other than in Oslon. I smiled. Their discontent said they would not be as diligent in conducting their duties as they should be. Obviously the majority of Rogarian warriors did not know they were looking for the Malus Apostate who called himself Roland of the High Crags.
Resuming my trek toward the Iberian camp I entered the fortified camp by walking through the main gates and past two shivering Iberian warriors assigned to stand guard. Both had wrapped themselves in heavy cloaks. But the morning’s cold was intense. In moments if they were not relieved and a fresh set of guards were assigned these two would collapse from hypothermia.
But the camp was almost deserted. The heavy jingle of gold and silver coin filling the pockets of a hungry warrior could only mean one thing. The majority of the warriors were in Oslon filling the two or three inns with boisterous singing, the clanks of mugs full of ale being clinked together in one toast or another, the consumption of freshly cooked food, and a wave of drunkenness which would take days of painful remorse to recover from. Frowning as I made my way deeper into the camp I knew the odds of finding recruits had seriously diminished in the last twenty-four hours. Yet I had to try.
Coming around the corner of one stoutly built log cabin large enough to house four warriors I almost bumped into a surly looking, wide shouldered Iberian who had the look of brooding trouble on his scared, pock-marked face. He was dressed in the winter garb all Iberian mercenaries wore in winter; thick leather pants, heavy leather boots, a padded leather jerkin over a varnished leather armored breastplate, a heavy brown colored wool tunic wrapped around his body and clamped with a simple spring-loaded clamp in such a way as to allow his arms to be his free and for him to move about and yet stay relatively warm.
His face was a mask of thunderous fury. Curious, on impulse I decided to follow the man and see what might have been the source which made him so angry. Falling in step behind him, invisible to all, I followed the man as he marched down a line of four log cabins before coming to a halt at the fifth. Turning to face the cabin door he did not hesitate. A heavy boot came up and kicked the door of the cabin with a vicious blow. The door flew open with such force both leather hinges of the door split and the door banged onto the wooden floor of the cabin with a tremendous crash.
From within I heard the startled shouts of men. As the burly warrior entered the dark environs of the cabin I followed. And was immediately hit with a wave of stench from men who neither took care of themselves nor their living space with any thought of cleanliness.
The warrior’s voice was deep, loud, and like a slap in the face from a mailed fist. Three of the four drunken Iberians, suddenly awake and terrified, rolled out of their bunks and tried to come to some form of attention. The fourth, a wiry looking blond haired creature still lay in a bottom bunk and appeared asleep.
The warrior in front of me twisted his face into a black mask of contempt as he took three steps to one side, bent down, and gripped the slumbering creature by the neck and bodily lifted him out of the untidy bunk. The blond Iberian, so rudely awaken, threw up a hand toward the burly warrior’s face. In the head was the ugly edge of a dirk. But the blond was too slow, or too drunk, to be of any threat. With a dismissive grunt the burly warrior slapped the dirk from the lad’s hands and then back-handed the blonde across the face with a blow hard enough to send the lad skidding across the roughly hewn flooring of the cabin.
“I understand there was a confrontation with a townsman and his wife yesterday. Is that correct, Bolthar?”
The lad came to his wobbly feet, rubbing a large red welt on the side of his face, and glared angrily at the bigger man standing in the middle of the cabin.
“We have orders, Semion, to rough up anyone we think might be a Bretan follower of sympathizer. I was just doing what I was ordered to do.”
“Did this order you received mean you can beat an old man nearly to death and almost rape his wife while standing on a public street!”
“I . . .”
He never finished his sentence. The burly Iberian with the scowling face back-handed the blond warrior again with such a blow the smaller warrior bounced off a wall of the cabin and slid to his knees.
“Get up! Beletrix wishes to talk to you.”
“Beletrix does not command me! I am in Hymius’ company!”
“Beletrix is the office of the day. Until he is relieved of his duty, he damn well commands you! Now get dressed and march to the captain’s quarters on the double. You hear me, warrior?”
A look of black hate filled the blond’s young face. But he remained silent and nodded as he worked himself off the floor and back to a standing position. The bigger, older man nodded, glanced to his right and scowled at the three men who had stood silently and watched their comrade be used as a punching bag. They stood in a rough approximation of being at attention. But the cold of the open door and the freezing breeze blowing in was making all three violently shake.
Saying not another word the burly man turned and strode out of the cabin. And I followed. I hoped this foul-tempered warrior would lead me to the cabin of this Beletrix. Whoever this Iberian swordsmen was I wished to meet him.
True to my hunch the powerful warrior strolled down four rows of neatly arranged cabins, five to a row, and arrived at a lone cabin set off and away from the others. Smoke from a well made chimney lifted up into the dry but cold morning air. On either side of the cabin’s door were two large warriors, wrapped in heavy cloaks, and standing inside little wooden shacks just large enough for a man to stand in. Within each shack, setting on the floor, were a large brass jars radiating heat and pushing back the frigid cold of the day. I nodded, pleased at what I saw. The shacks protected the two warriors posted as guards from the wind and elements. The brass jars at their feet was an old trick of heating large stones with oil and allowing the heat to radiate out into the shack.
I was impressed. This Beletrix seemed to be an officer who knew how to take care of his men.
Nodding to the men the burly warrior in front of me marched to the door of the cabin, stopped for a moment to rap twice on the door, and then opened the door and stepped in. I barely had time to slip in behind him before the door was closed. Inside the cabin was comfortably warm, with the smell of cinnamon and fresh bread lingering in the air. To one side was a long table filled with food and drink. At the far end of the cabin was a large wooden fireplace with a well kept blaze burning within. In front of the hearth was an average sized man with light brown hair of curly disposition. Dark brown eyes were set in a young but weathered face. The dark eyes had the look of a man who had seen much–done much–and regretted most of it. As he lifted his face to look at the one called Simion I could see the look of concern in it.
“He comes, captain. But there was some . . . reluctance . . . on his part to do so. I convinced him to change his mind. In a manner of speaking.”
Captain Beletrix eyed the older, bigger man for some seconds, and then broke out into a knowing smile as he nodded.
“Poor yourself a mug of warm cider, Simion. Have a slice or two of fresh bread. It may be some time before we see provisions like this again.”
Simion’s scowl returned. But he nodded and moved to the table laden with food and drink and did as he was ordered. Coming back to stand in front of Beletrix the man took a sip of the warm cider and nodded.
“It is good. Too bad we have not the funds to stock our wagons with some. The journey back of the pass will be long and difficult. And dangerous.”
“Yes, dangerous. If we were going that way, my friend. But I doubt the pass will be the route we take back home. Our difficulties are enough to handle without taking on the possibility of being trapped for the winter in the pass. Or worse.”
Simion nodded as if he understood
Both man stood silently for a moment staring at the fire. Simion drank in silence and chewed on fresh bread. I found myself wondering what was meant by Beletrix’s words concerning leaving the camp. I decided it would be worth taking the risk of being discovered to wait and see if more was said.
“Are the men prepared for the march?”
“Yea, captain. As prepared as we can be. All that is required is for you to tell us in what direction to march.”
Beletrix nodded but remained silent. Simion frowned and continued.
“How many have cast their fate with me, my friend?”
“At last count fifteen hundred men, captain. From the settlements of Iries and Corona. But I have to report we march on empty stomachs. And in the dead of winter. Will not Hymius not reconsider his decision to not pay us what’s rightfully ours? How does he expect us to return to Iberia with no supplies and empty wagons?”
“I believe he wishes us not to return to our homelands, old friend. But it does not matter what our good commander think’s anymore. When tomorrow’s dawn arises we will be free of this miserable pack of wolves. And better yet, we will be free of Rogarians.”
“Aye, for that I give thanks to Shin’zin! But will that be enough?”
Beletrix smiled sadly and shrugged just as a loud knocking thrummed on the wooden door behind me. Moving to one side in silence I watched as Beletrix gave a loud order to enter. In stepped Balthar decorated with a huge bruise on the side of his face and one eye partially closed and heavily bruised.
What followed was ten minutes of Beletrix verbally ripping the young blond warrior to shreds with a dressing down of classic vigor! The young warrior winced with every word Beltrix hurled at him. At any other time I would have enjoyed listening to the tirade. But my mind was afire with something else. Something far more exciting to contemplate!
The burly old man of arms, Simion, thanked Shin’zin for being set free from Rogarian control! Shin’zin! Bretan! In the midst of this gigantic Rogarian trap I had found warriors of the Bretan!