Prologue - Scrier

 

 “The Schism was years ago. And yes, at the time we were desperate. Any solution was acceptable, no matter how ludicrous. But it has been over fifty years! Our enemies are routed, our temple has never been stronger! Let us put an end to this despicable practice that continues to taint our bloodline! Let us put an end to the Scrying!”

Sir Caddox, Knight of Brachyura, 417 AT

“Again!”

The olive-skinned youth spat out a mouthful of dirt and pulled himself laboriously to his feet. He took a moment to catch his breath, his cold, piercing blue eyes scanning his surroundings. The temple practice yard had been deliberately built on the very edge of the clifftop. Three sides of the stone-columned square were turned towards the barren, windswept bluffs of Kessrin. The last side looked out over the churning Sea of Sorrow, its foam-flecked waves crashing relentlessly against the jagged rocks hundreds of feet below. No one would survive such a fall, no matter how skilled or resilient he might be. The callous, destructive power of the sea was a constant reminder of man’s insignificance.

Dark grey storm clouds boiled angrily overhead, pushed inland by the strong maritime wind. A flash of brilliant white lightning followed by a growling rumble of thunder heralded what was soon to come.

“Aldarin! Again!”

A dozen initiates lined the western side of the square, still as statues, their backs to the desolate sea. They were focused intently on two young men sparring in the grit and dirt of the yard, and the taciturn temple master instructing them.

Aldarin’s adversary was different from him in almost every way: squat and broad-shouldered where Aldarin was tall and wiry; blond-haired and pale-skinned where Aldarin was tanned with close-cropped black hair. And, of course, perfect patrician features in contrast to Aldarin’s battered, flat nose and scarred visage. His name was Caddox, and Aldarin wanted nothing more than to grind that blond hair and flawless smile into the stinging grit of the practice yard.

Aldarin!” the temple master called again irritably. The wind was picking up, swirling the loose dirt into miniature whirlwinds.

“Yes, Master,” Aldarin replied with a sigh. They had been repeating attacks and counter-attacks for the last hour and, despite using everything he had learnt from his time at the temple, he had yet to break through Caddox’s defences. His opponent was two years older, stronger, and above all, more experienced.

Aldarin slipped into an offensive stance and edged slowly forwards, seeking some flicker of insight in Caddox’s eyes revealing what he would do. But the older youth was cold and unreadable, a slight smile of disdain being the only emotion visible on his face.

Suddenly, Aldarin propelled himself forwards, aiming a quick combination of punches to his enemy’s face. As Caddox raised his arms to block the assault, Aldarin swivelled round and sent a sharp roundhouse kick whistling towards his opponent’s exposed right knee. At the last moment, Caddox took a half-step backwards and the kick failed to connect. Aldarin stumbled, caught off-balance, and a jab to the shoulder was enough to hurl him crashing to the ground. A kick to the stomach ripped his tunic and sent him rolling backwards.

Caddox laughed, a high-pitched nasal sound half-lost in the wind. He brushed some imaginary dust from his shoulder and winked at the watching initiates. “And so, yet again, the boy does not understand the difference between a dance and a fight! You are trying to hit me, Scrier, not woo me!”

Scrier. Aldarin hated that word. Most of the initiates were born here at the temple, their parents being members of the Order of Brachyura, Fourth of the Twelve, and distant descendants of his bloodline. But, as the population dwindled, it was decided that this was not enough and that if the Order was to survive, it must venture forth from the comfort of the temple walls and search for others whose blood contained traces of the Twelve. This became known as the Scrying, and those brought back from the outside world were quickly labelled as scriers.

Scriers were easy to spot. Those born and raised in the temple spent most of their time in the caves and tunnels cut deep into the cliff face. When necessity forced them outside, they were faced with the damp marshlands surrounding the cliffs, the frequent thunderstorms, and the cold, biting wind. Sun was a rarity, slow to show its face and quick to slip away. Most initiates were pale and thin, their skin bleached white from lack of sunlight.

Scriers, on the other hand, were found throughout the nine Baronies in a myriad of skin tones and sizes. And they were not welcomed with open arms. The opposite in fact. For the most part, scriers were ‘half-bloods’: only one of their parents was a true son or daughter of Brachyura. They were seen as tainted, inferior. The word scrier quickly became derogatory, a symbol of the divide between those born within the temple and its more recent arrivals.

Aldarin’s mother had been part of the Order and his father a butcher. His early years were spent slaughtering livestock, dressing their flesh and selling their meat. These were long, hard days out in the sun with a cleaver or filleting knife, animal blood sluicing down his arms as he worked. His tanned body made him immediately recognisable for what he was and what he would always be. An outsider. A pariah. A scrier.

“Well, Scrier? Want another go at it? Or have you had enough for today?” Caddox wandered over to the prostrate form of Aldarin and prodded him with his foot.

“Enough talking,” growled Aldarin angrily. He rose unsteadily to one knee, hand pressed against his aching stomach. “Once more.”

“Very well, quickly now, before the storm hits,” said the temple master, eyeing the darkening sky warily.

Caddox rolled his shoulders and smiled. “Of course, Master. I don’t think it will take more than a minute or two. Scrier? You’ve eaten a fair amount of dust today. Do you still have some room for a little more?”

I can’t beat him, Aldarin thought. He has had the same training, the same teachers. How can I surprise someone who can guess my every move?

“Lucky the temple took you in, eh, Scrier?” Caddox continued sardonically. “Heard your mother died from the pox and your father used to beat you with a stick when he’d had a few too many cups of wine.”

“Don’t talk about my parents.”

“Unless you liked it, of course. Did you, Scrier? When your father whipped your back? Did you enjoy it?”

“QUIET!” roared Aldarin. A red haze blurred his vision. He charged forwards, yelling incoherently. Caddox hit him hard across the jaw, but Aldarin barely felt it. Two more strides brought him inside his enemy’s guard. His heart pounding, he grabbed Caddox by the shoulders and, with a final cry of rage, slammed his head down in an unstoppable head-butt.

A crack resonated around the enclosed square as Caddox’s nose broke in a spray of blood. The older youth reeled backwards with a cry of pain. Aldarin snaked his foot around his opponent’s ankle and sent him sprawling. He was down, but it wasn’t enough. Aldarin moved forwards, his hands bunched into fists, his breath escaping from his lungs in short, angry gasps.

“That’s enough!” came the voice of the temple master, reaching Aldarin beyond a sea of boiling red waves.

“My opponent has not yet yielded, Master,” he replied through clenched teeth, drawing on every ounce of self-control he had left.

“You forget yourself.”

“But—” The temple master cut him off with a swing of his wooden cudgel, dealing Aldarin a stinging blow across the shoulder.

“I said enough, Scrier. I suppose you are pleased with your victory? Do you really believe you fought with honour? With decency? Is this the image you wish to convey to others? Is this how you would represent our Order? If Brachyura was standing here now, he would be ashamed. Though I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything better from a scrier like yourself. You will never be one of us, boy. Not now, not ever. Dismissed.”

The temple master’s words cut Aldarin far deeper than his cudgel. He turned without a word and walked away from the yard, the initiates, and the approaching storm, back down into the dark tunnels he now called home.

They came for him shortly after supper, as he knew they would.

Caddox was well-liked and his earlier humiliation would not sit well among the other senior initiates. They ambushed him in one of the narrower corridors; two blocking his path, two more impeding his retreat. He managed to land a couple of punches before they slammed him to the ground.

A stray kick knocked a tooth from his mouth. Another cracked a rib. He curled up into a ball on the floor, hands over his head as the blows rained down. One of the stronger assailants stamped on his wrist with a booted heel and Aldarin screamed in agony as the bone shattered. This seemed to satisfy his attackers who ceased their assault and slinked away into the shadows.

He was found a few minutes later and carried to the infirmary where his wrist was splinted and bandaged. He slipped in and out of consciousness as day became night, then night became day. Some time later, he was aware of a robed figure standing at the end of his bed. He struggled to focus his tired eyes.

The figure was a woman, tall and lithe with burnished red hair that spilled down her back like a waterfall of scintillating fire. Her emerald robes, tightly gathered with a simple leather belt, were the same colour as her eyes. The axe icon of Brachyura hung from a silver chain around her neck, nestling snugly between her full breasts. Her sharp, prominent cheekbones and thin nose would have made her seem cold and austere were it not for the mischievous smile that played across her lips.

Aldarin knew her well. Better than most. Her name was Praedora and she was a Priestess of the Twelve. But, more importantly, she was the one who had found him in a squalid village, miles from Kessrin, and brought him home.

“I’m not sure you are doing this right, Aldarin,” she said. Her voice was rich and melodious. It flowed over Aldarin like a ray of sunlight on a warm summer’s day. “You seem to be spending a disproportionate time in the infirmary compared to out in the practice yard. Surely the more you practise, the less often I should find you here?”

“Yes, my Lady.” Aldarin felt a soft flush redden his cheeks. Why did he always feel embarrassed to speak with her?

“And what about your face! Skin as smooth as a baby when I first found you, and now look at you! It looks like you tried to dive off the cliffs into the Sea of Sorrow!”

A pale hand traced the scars that criss-crossed his face. He could see similar white marks cutting through the palm of her own hand. There was only one way to detect the descendants of the Twelve, and that was to mix their blood with that of a priestess, provoking a chain reaction between the two.

Sometimes this was nothing more than a tingling sensation or an electric shock, but occasionally it could be much more, a melding of minds between priestess and initiate. When, two years ago, Praedora had cut open her palm and pressed it against his own, Aldarin had felt the full weight of her strengths, weaknesses, fears, and desires. He glanced up to see her studying him, worry creasing her brow.

“It is nothing, my Lady. A simple jest between initiates.” An ebony-skinned patient moaned in the bed to his right. Tall and thin like Aldarin, his face similarly covered in cuts and bruises. Another scrier. In fact, most of the infirmary was full of young men and women who had not been born here.

“I came to talk to you about something,” said Praedora. She sat down beside him on the bed and smoothed out the folds of her robe. Aldarin could discern a faint smell of honeysuckle.

“I think you are losing yourself,” she continued.

“What?”

“Do you remember when we first met?”

“At the Scrying?”

“No, before that. We had just arrived at your village. It was raining hard and we were exhausted. No one rode out to greet us. We are used to this, of course. It is common for us to be shunned, feared even. And then you arrived. You greeted us courteously. You led us to the nearby inn. Why, one of the knights told me that you had even unsaddled and groomed our horses yourself! And yet you asked for nothing in return. Do you remember?”

“Can’t say I do, my Lady. But I always used to greet newcomers to the village. Seemed the right thing to do.”

“Exactly. The right thing to do. You have great potential, Aldarin. One day, you may be better than all of us. But you must stop wanting to be like those who were born here.”

“But they have such an advantage.”

“Do they? They have lived here. And only here. They have been raised in safety. In comfort. They know nothing of the outside world and the hardships it can bring. Many are bitter and resentful, unwilling to share this life with others. Why would you want to be like them? Remember the boy who helped me when I was tired and cold two years ago. He did not care who I was, or where I came from.”

Aldarin stared into her green eyes and knew she was right. He had forgotten who he was.

“I will try, my Lady.”

“I hope you will. Scrier should not be a sign of disgrace but a badge of honour, worn with pride. Maybe if you reached out to others who are suffering as you are,” she nodded at the dark-skinned youth in the bed nearby, “you would find it easier to weather the coming storm.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“Good.” Praedora rose from the bed and made as if to leave. Reaching the doorway, she hesitated, then turned back to Aldarin one last time.

“And Aldarin?”

“Yes, my Lady?”

“If anyone, I mean anyone, hurts you like this again, I will find out who it is; I will burn off their shrivelled member with the blue incandescence of Brachyura and throw them from the Cliffs of Kessrin myself.”

And, with a swish of silken robes, she departed, leaving behind a startled Aldarin and a lingering scent of honeysuckle.

 

The Ashen Hand of Kessrin - Book 2 in the War of the Twelve series

Ebook and tradepaperback available through Amazon End of June 2021

(c) Alex Robins 2021