Late March CR708
The carriage swayed back and forth as it jolted along the road. The driver did his best to avoid the worst of the ruts with only limited success.
The man in the seat tried to find a more comfortable position. He bore the black robes and collar of an Ecclesia priest with only one extra decoration to distinguish him from a parish priest; around his neck he bore a golden cross as a medallion. But even that belied his true position. For this man with firm eyes, weathered sun-beaten brow and black hair turning to gray was a Patriarchal legate personally appointed by the leader of the Ecclesia to be his representative. Only the sealed parchment in his hands signed by the Patriarch, and the signet ring he had hidden within the folds of his cassock, revealed this.
Seated across from the legate was a tall bearded man wearing a set of plate armor which clanked with every jostling tilt of the wagon. Draped over the armor was a tabard of deep blue with a gold Follower cross on front and back. The heraldry marked him as a knight of the Order of Protectors. He was Sir Jacob Harrick, Senior Knight Commander of the order and second only to Knight Master Kenward. “My apologies, Father. The roads are not in the best of shape at this time of year.”
“Do I smell,” the legate paused and sniffed the air, eyes noting the mountains, once in the distance, but now pressing close to their right flank, "Flowers?”
Sir Harrick smiled, revealing a missing tooth, and nodded. “Oh yes. The mustard flowers have just come into bloom.” He pointed out the left window to a large field in the midst of the hills that dominated the landscape; the field was covered like a quilt with bright yellow flowers.
Everywhere he looked the man saw the bright yellow flowers growing. "So you grow and harvest the mustard plant?”
“Oh yes, Father. And the entire plant is used. The seeds we use as a spice, the leaves are chopped or ground up, the stalks are pressed for their oil and the flowers are used to make yellow dye.” The knight could not hide a bit of pride and delight in his voice as he spoke. “The order makes considerable profit by that little plant. Nearly three-quarters of the order's money comes from those fields.”
“And that allows the order its independence from feudal levies?” The legate asked, though he already knew the answer.
“Yes,” Harrick replied with another nod. “Money has brought down many otherwise good people. These fields allow us to pursue our mission without having to pander to every nobleman with a sack of gold. Also, I think being involved with horticulture reminds the order of what we're here for and teaches us humility.”
The legate smiled and then folded his hands in his lap. “And that is why our monastic orders always cultivate the land near their monasteries. Humble work is good for the soul.” He tapped his thumbs together and then gestured with his chin at the field. “I see that you have many more laying fallow.”
“We would have more fields flowering if we could stop all the raiders from Sathmore,” Harrick added darkly, his brow furrowing as he stared at the barren fields beyond the sea of yellow blossoms.
The legate glanced at the knight. “How often do they attack?”
“It varies with the seasons. With all this good weather the raids are often once a week. Most other winters there are few attacks at all except on the Yule. The Lightbringers always attack on the Yuletide day itself.”
“The Order of the Protectors raids into Sathmore as well,” the legate noted as drily as if he were remarking upon the weather, his eyes never leaving the broad fields, and rolling hills rising up either side.
“Of course,” Harrick replied curtly. “It is the only way to prevent even more raiding. They must be kept off-balance, or they will do the same to us.”
“And do you raid into Sathmore on the Lightbringer holy days?” The legate asked slowly without taking his eyes off of the fields.
Harrick's expression softened. “No. We have in the past, but Knightmaster Lathane put a stop to that. Attacking on a holy day, even if it isn't ours, seems,” the knight paused for a moment and bore a pained look. “It seems wrong. A sacrilege.”
The legate had to grab his seat as the carriage jolted to a halt. Harrick never shifted in his seat.
“Cantel Roegh,” the knight declared and gestured out the window. A short distance away, framed by the peaks of the Sathmore range, legate saw a large castle brooding on a massive hill that towered over all the others nearby. “A fortress of the Order of Protecters since the year 615, Cristos Reckoning.”
“Who held the castle before then?”
“The Order of the Shields held the fortress before they were forced to relinquish it,” the knight explained. “They seized it from a Sathmore nobleman and held it for a long time before being ordered to give it to our order. They refused to give up the castle and it's lands easily. It took a direct order from the Patriarch for them to finally leave. Even so they stripped the entire complex bare and were taking out the window frames and removing the roof tiles before the cardinal ordered them to stop.”
The legate gazed at the castle for a moment. It was an impressive structure with two curtain walls, one within the other and a tall keep tower at the center. All done in a fine red brick that gave the place it's name. "We have heard rumors of continuing tension between the two orders. What of them?”
The knights face grew sad for a moment. "Sadly, they are all too true. I've heard it said that the best thing between the two orders is the Sathmore mountains.”
The legate gave the castle one last look before returning to his seat. The carriage resumed its journey up the road toward the castle a moment later. “Has that hostility ever come to blows?”
“No,” came the swift response. “At least nothing beyond a fist fight. To be honest Father, the two orders have little contact. The distance between us is too great.”
“Unfortunate in both regards. Your orders ought to cooperate in the Ecclesia's work as do many of the other knightly orders.”The father said.
“Agreed but when I said the distance between them is too great I meant it literally,” the knight explained. “The nearest order of the Shield fortress is over two hundred leagues from here.” He waved a hand off to the south.
The legate nodded with a sour expression. “That is a far distance.”
“It's one of the reasons we were given Cantel Roegh,” the knight added. “It was too far from the Shield's other possessions for them to control properly.”
“I see,” the legate said slowly, tapping his thumbs together as he pondered Harrick's words. “The Protectors holding this fortress makes perfect sense. How large an area does the order control?"
"We have as our domain all of the Midlands and our headquarters is at Chough castle. That is in the Southern Midlands on the eastern slopes of the Sathmore mountains," the knight answered.
The legate nodded. "I see but does it not strain your order trying to control such a vast place with so few brothers?”
“It does,” Harrick admitted. “We do what we can with what we have. And we are the only group large enough to maintain a fortress like this. Most of the border is held by a large number of nobles who each control only a small area. Some are more worried about their Midlands neighbors than Sathmore. And even the most dedicated can only realistically control a small area.”
"All too true. Often he nobles have been their own worst enemies; and all too often creating divisions and hatreds where there shouldn't be.”
"This border region has seen far too much violence over the years," the knight explained. "With the Sea of Stars on one side and the Sathmore mountains on the other it's a natural invasion route. Anyone wanting to invade Sathmore and Pyralis must pass through here." He pointed off to the east. "The battle of Brundolo took place a mere 10 miles from here. And the ruins of a legion fortress are only three miles from here. And being the border between Sathmore and the Midlands makes it worse. Warfare is a daily occurrence here sometimes. This land has a history drenched in blood."
Sir Edmund Delacot stood in the Duke's antechamber waiting quietly. The cheetah morph paladin was dressed in a tunic and pants both colored a deep blue. Embroidered onto the front of his tunic was a gold cross. He stood with a stiffness and a rigidity that was far removed from his usual casual manner and bearing. When the doors opened he marched into the audience chamber with the crisp, military, precision of a soldier on parade.
He found Duke Thomas Hassan seated on his throne looking regal and solemn. The black stallion morph nodded in greeting.
"Duke Thomas Hassan I am Edmund Philip Delacot, a Knight Commander of the Order of Protectors and I am here as an official representative of the order and the Knightmaster," he said in a calm and serious tone. Edmund extended his arm towards the duke. In his hand was a brown envelope. "This is an official message for Duke Thomas alone."
Thomas slowly reached out and took the envelope. It was made of a thick, hard, paper that was almost like cardboard. The seal on the back was in blue wax and had a single cross as the emblem pressed into it. The Duke opened the envelope and found a neatly folded letter inside.
"Lord Thomas Hassan, Duke of Metamor and the Northern Midlands.
Greetings and salutations,
I hope this missive finds you and you wife in good health. My heartiest congratulations and best wishes on your recent marriage. I wish to inform your eminence that the order that I am privileged to lead has recently acquired a small tract of property in the Northern Midlands. It is a small castle and the village of Fulgar. We hope that our moving into this new location will be of mutual benefit to all and to help bring stability in these unsettled times. My sincere apologies for not being able to bring this news to you in person. Events here prevent me from traveling far but Edmund Delacot who has delivered this message has my full confidence and is my representative. You can discuss things with him in the assurance of his having my full authority to act in my place.
Godric Neville Kenward
Knightmaster Order of the Protectors"
Thomas placed the letter down on the table next to him. "What do you mean the order is moving into my area? And where exactly IS Fulgar?"
"It is exactly twenty four miles north west of the town of Komley," Edmund responded crisply,
Thomas nodded his head slowly. "I see. And exactly how did the order come into possession of an entire town and castle?"
"We bought it," the feline paladin responded simply.
"Bought it?" Thomas asked. Surprised.
"The noble family that owned it has few possessions in the Northern Midlands and wanted to consolidate in Pyralis," Edmund explained. "They offered it to the Order of the Shields but those good fellows do not have jurisdiction in the Midlands. So that order directed them to us. And the Order of Protectors was happy to purchase the place."
Thomas gave a neigh of laughter. "That seems convoluted."
Edmund nodded his head. "Everything involving politics is confusing and convoluted. The order has been looking to expand its presence in the North since Winter Assault occurred. This offer came at the right time to be most beneficial."
"Why does the order think it necessary to move into my domain?" Thomas said coldly.
"There are certain elements who are not going to be happy about the Order moving into that area permanently." Edmund said. "Meaning Midtown and Lord Donel?"
Thomas leaned back in his chair. "Donel is trying to expand his power and will take the order's interference poorly. I can understand his unease. I do not like outsiders interfering in my affairs."
"Donel and his greed are the reason the order bought the place," Edmund answered honestly. There was a touch of disgust in his voice. "We are aware of the trouble he has been causing locally. And we want to keep an eye on his antics. The Midlands has enough problems without him causing more."
"You know a lot about my diplomatic and political problems," Thomas said. He was staring at the feline with the cold and calculating look.
If the look bothered Edmund it didn't show. He remained cold if a little stiff. Aware of the formal nature of the meeting he refused to really relax. "I'm a wandering Brother of the order of Protectors. That means my anointed task is to help bring peace and stability to the Midlands. I have spent my entire time as a brother dealing with criminals, bandits and greedy and overly ambitious nobles."
Thomas held up the letter he had in his hand. "Why should I allow this?"
"The order has no political, geological or financial ambitions," Edmund explained. "We are here to keep the peace."
"The order hasn't talked or communicated with me in a long time. You are their first representative to the Dukes of Metamor in thirty years." Thomas dropped the letter back onto the table.
"The reason you haven't had much contact with the order is that we've had no reason to bother you," the feline knight explained. "You've been a good and fair ruler. Like most of the dukes of Metamor."
The duke looked at Edmund for a moment. "Thank you. Why suddenly do you feel it's necessary to be so involved in Northern Midlands affairs?"
"Recent events has forced the order to reconsider its handling of affairs here in the north," the paladin responded slowly. "And ALL of the Midlands is our responsibility."
"I see. I've heard of the events that happened in the Outer and southern Midlands," the equine said.
The paladin slowly nodded his head. "It's unsettling. One reason we've never had a large presence here in the north is that the Dukes of Metamor have done a fine job of keeping the peace," Edmund explained. "We don't want to see that change. One of the reasons for this fortress is to keep an eye on Midtown, Menth and Sorin. It's also to be able to send support here to Metamor if it's needed. Things in the north are changing and we need stay appraised of what happens in the Giantdowns. And to be honest the Yule assault on the keep caught us off guard. It made us realize how badly we have been neglecting this region."
"So you decided to just move into my territory and correct things?" The stallion responded in angry terms.
The paladin leaned closer. "Our acquisition of this place is legitimate and honorable."
"It is only legitimate if I, the Duke decide it is," Thomas said coldly.
Edmund shook his head. "No. You can't stop us from taking it over. Your power in that region has deteriorated. If you still had full control there the order wouldn't need to take over the castle."
The duke sighed. "I have enough political troubles without the order adding more complications."
"We're not here to complicate matters. We are here to help stabilize things. To prevent the mayhem and havoc that have so recently rocked the rest of the Midlands. With our help you can restore your power and stabilize the Northern Midlands again. So Metamor can concentrate on the true threats to the north. In the year I have been here have I or my people caused any trouble?"
Edmund leaned closer. "We are not the enemy Thomas. Please don't make us into your enemy. Together we can help restore the Dukes of Metamor to great power and help bring a true peace to the whole land."
"If I allow this people will see it as a sign of weakness and think I am incapable of defending myself or that I truly cannot even manage affairs in my own lands," Thomas snorted. "I cannot allow that."
"They already see you as weak," Edmund responded. "Once the Dukes controlled all of the Midlands. Now all you really have power over is the valley and a few miles beyond it. And to many the Yule attack shows you as weak. You allowed an enemy to sneak into your very home and catch you off guard."
Thomas stood up straight and snorted hard several times. "WE did not allow anyone to attack us. And we defeated the invaders. Their corpses litter the valley. It shows how good we are at defending ourselves." He stomped his hooves on the floor.
"I know that," Edmund said, unmoved by the large stallion's display. "The order knows that but your enemies are using it as an excuse." He paused for a moment and then leaned even closer to the duke. When he spoke it was in a soft conspiratorial whisper. "We have heard rumors. Ugly ones. We ignored such rumors in the past and the result was the recent unpleasantness. We will not make that mistake again. We need to deal with this while it is small."
"The dukes have been good leaders. You are a good leader," he said. "But even a good leader needs help and good allies. The Order of Protectors can be those allies. We can help you."
"I do not want enemies," the equine Duke said slowly. "But I have an entire kingdom to think about. A decision made in haste can lead to countless troubles later on. I need to ponder this and will give you my answer tomorrow."
“I wish we had been told earlier of your coming here,” the knight said with a sudden narrowing of his eyes. “Had we been forewarned of your arrival we would have waited. But thankfully the meeting only just started today.”
“Meeting?” The legate asked with the first genuine note of surprise entering his voice. “What meeting is this?”
“Knight Master Kenward has called all the Knight Commanders here. All of the high Brothers actually to discuss the recent unpleasantness in the Southern Midlands.”
The look of surprise vanished and an officious expression took its place. His voice was cold with reprimand. “You mean the civil war and your orders failure to act?”
Harrick fixed the legate with a hard stare filled with anger and fury. “Father,” he said in clipped and official tones, “I am under strict orders to not discuss that with anyone until the matter is resolved.”
“You mean while the Order devises a way to escape punishment for its crimes of negligence,” he said.
“FATHER!” The knight growled half standing up. For a moment the legate was sure the man would lash out at him but he sat down with a thump that rocked the whole carriage. “This conversation is at an end,” he said simply and turned his head away.
To the legate's embarrassment, one hand had clutched the hem of his cassock tightly. Nevertheless, he drew himself together and stared at the knight, a man twice his size and far more capable of snapping him in half than he'd rather admit. “No. This conversation is not over.”
“I am under orders, Father. I will say nothing.”
“You Order swears fealty and obedience to the Patriarch. I am here as the Patriarch's personal representative. You are to obey me as you would obey him.” The legate kept his gaze, cool and fixed, planted firmly upon the knight's face. Harrick tensed at those words, but finally, his glance slid back toward the priest; defiance briefly flared to life, but training stilled and humbled it. “The conversation ends when I decide it ends.”
“Very well, Father. But there is not much you will hear now that you will not hear in greater detail later.”
“Your Order failed to act, either on your own account, or even at the behest of Duke Verdane, to intervene in the civil war. What has your Order gathered here to discuss?”
Harrick ground his teeth together. “We're here to discuss why we failed and what to do about it, Father.”
The legate nodded and then leaned back in his seat as the carriage continued its bumpy way up the road to the castle. “That is good. I shall wait to hear more when your Order meets.”
Harrick grunted and turned his grateful head back to contemplation of the mountains. Neither spoke another word and the rest of the trip was made in silence.
The road up to the castle was at a shallow grade but it paralleled the castle the entire way. Not once during the ride were they out of arrow range of the walls. At this distance he noted that the walls which he had taken for stone were actually of brick! Normal, kiln fired brick. Still it was an impressive structure with tall, strong walls and towers. The legate noted at least a dozen figures on the wall watching them and he assumed they were archers. There was a short wait at a small gatehouse before the carriage clattered through the stone building and into the open area beyond.
The carriage came to a halt in the inner courtyard of the castle. The legate slowly stepped down into a courtyard alive with activity. The courtyard was over a fifty yards wide and was ringed on all sides by tall, multistory buildings of the same brick as the walls and topped with red tile roofing.
He saw brother-knights and civilians moving about on various errands. A pair of young boys came forward and unhitched the horses from the carriage. Tucked against one wall was a simple fountain whose water burbled and splashed adding a soothing sound to an otherwise busy place. The legate noticed that sitting prominently on one side was a large church whose spire was topped not by a simple roof but a tall watchtower. That tower made the legate tense; a church was supposed to be capped by a spire with a carillon of bells whose sweet and sonorous peals would toll out the hours calling people to prayer in praise of Eli and his glorious creation and salvation. Witnessing a military structure on top of a house of Eli made the legate's skin shiver and pimple with Goosebumps. There could be no doubt that these people were devoted to the Ecclesia but were also soldiers and warriors.
“This way please,” Sir Harrick said and pointed to a set of stairs leading to a second floor landing. Behind the landing was a large, wide building with many arched windows, each with a black painted metal shutter. Standing at the top of the steps was a middle aged woman wearing a blue dress with a gold cross on it. Her black hair was barely shoulder length and was bound up in tight braids.
The woman quickly descended the steps and curtsied to the legate. “My name is Arveline Dewitt. My apologies for the small reception, Father, but matters here are unsettled. The Knightmaster has been informed of your arrival and he wishes to see you immediately.”
The legate nodded his head. “Good. I wish to see him as well and with all haste.”
Arveline motioned to a pair of servants standing nearby. “See to the legate's baggage please.”
“Yes, milady,” the two servants, both young boys on the cusp of manhood, responded and hastened to the carriage.
“I'll see that your baggage is delivered to your rooms. Our accommodations are a bit spare but they are clean and wholesome,” she said with a measure of pride revealed in a slight dimpling of her cheeks.
The new visitor recalled that no less than twenty of the Order's rules were dedicated to cleanliness and such matters as not allowing a latrine upstream from where drinking water was drawn. Common sense really but such sense was sadly lacking in many other places.
The trio climbed the steps and passed through a doorway with a rounded arch. The corridor beyond led deeper into the fortress, the gloom lit only by the narrow windows and tar-scented torches lining the opposing wall. They walked swiftly down the corridor without turning. “A small question,” the legate asked with a faint smile on his lips. “What is your role in the Order? You wear the colors of a knight, but no Order of the Ecclesia allows women to bear arms in combat.”
“The Order of Protectors is the same,” Arveline replied with a return faint smile. “I am the Senior Lay Sister here. My duties are to command all the lay members of the Order. I am devoted to the Order but I'm not a knight nor do I bear arms. Although my son is a knight,” she said with renewed pride. “As is my husband.”
“There has been a Dewick in the order since it was founded,” Harrick added as if he were an uncle fondly dwelling on his nephews and nieces. “Her son is the fourth generation. Often father to son.”
“Sometimes father to cousin too,” she added. “Uncle Godwick is a fine brother.”
“Father to son?” The legate asked with some skepticism, making a mental note to review the Rule for the Protectors at his earlier convenience. “Does not the Order practice celibacy like the Order of the Shields?”
“Most brothers have taken a vow of celibacy,” Harrick explained slowly. “But not all. We are devoted to Eli but it is also understood that the Great one does love children and upholds the sacred union of marriage.”
The legate nodded slowly and tried not to show both his surprise and a bit of his ire at those words. It meant that either something else he had been told about the Order was wrong, or something far more dangerous. “The Order's Rule approved by the Patriarch specifies celibacy. Does it not?”
“It does,” Arveline answered slowly and deliberately. And so too did their pace. “But things change.”
“The brothers used to all take a vow of celibacy but often the flesh is weak,” Harrick said as they continued down the corridor, shadows once simple, now suggestive of even more secrets hiding within the Order. “One such weakness by a knight-brother resulted in a son born inappropriately. Later that boy grew into a fine young man and himself joined the Order.”
“The Order did not discipline the knight?” The legate asked in surprise. “And they accepted a bastard?”
“Of course the brother was disciplined! He broke the vows and rules of the order. And as for the child; Why shouldn't we accept him? He was not responsible for the circumstances of his birth,” the knight countered. “Still his early years in the Order were not easy and he was subjected to prejudice because of it. He persevered and quickly rose through the ranks.” Harrick's lips turned into a moue. “The knight who sired him... he did not rise in the ranks. He was a better father than he had been a Knight brother.”
“When brother Alwyn became Knightmaster Alwyn,” the woman added. “It was decided that perhaps the order should honor the sacred union of marriage.”
“There was some cold logic behind the decision,” the knight explained. “It allowed many to join who were already married. And it also allowed access to a source of brother-initiates that had never existed before - the sons of knights. What son doesn't want to follow in the footsteps of their father?”
“But to marry a Brother needs special dispensation from the Knight master himself,” she explained. “There are only a small number who are married. Around three hundred at last count.”
“You both are well versed in that argument,” the legate commented coldly. “A little too well perhaps.”
'It is an old argument,” Harrack said with a cool warning girding his voice. “That's always brought up when someone like yourself visits the order. Twice they have come solely because of it.”
“I see,” the legate said slowly. “I will defer any further inquiries until I have studied the Rule of your Order myself. For now, I offer you my apologies if I have accidentally insulted someone. I am not here to condemn or condone the Order's family habits as such. That would be a simple matter compared to my purpose.”
“You're here about the civil war,” Arveline offered bluntly. “It's the only reason you could be here.”
“The only time the Patriarch sends a legate is to discuss some problem,” Sir Harrick muttered. “They always bring trouble. Never praise or to offer help.”
“Perhaps the Ecclesia have for too long ignored the Order," the legate offered for the sake of charity. “I am aware that the Order's pleas have been ignored in favor of other pressing issues. But I assure you there have been many pleas from many places of late.”
“Yesulam is a long distance from here,” Harrick added. “Physically and emotionally.”
“That is no excuse, as Eli is always near, and the Ecclesia is as close as the nearest priest,” the legate reminded a bit more sternly than he would have liked. “I am here to discover what happened and to seek how to correct the problem regardless of what that might entail. If it leads back to the Ecclesia and Yesulam not responding to a plea when they should have, then so be it.”
Their steps finally came to an end in front of a closed oaken door. “The Knightmaster is waiting for you in here, Father,” Arveline announced.
The woman rapped on the door several times and it opened a small way and she leaned in. “The Legate is here to speak with the Knightmaster.” The legate didn't see who she was talking but the door quickly closed. Then it opened wide.
“Please see the legate in,” came a voice from the room beyond the door.
The room where the Knightmaster was holding session was of modest size; some twenty feet wide and about twice that long. It was sparsely furnished with only a simple Follower cross hanging on one of the whitewashed walls. Wooden tables and benches were placed along the walls, telling of the rooms other duty as a dining room. At one end of the room stood Sir Godric Neville Kenward Knightmaster of the order of Protectors. The legate was surprised at how short the man was; barely five feet tall. Short enough that he had to stand on a small block of stone to be seen by the twenty men assembled in front of him. All twenty-one were wearing plate mail armor, over which was a blue tunic. Prominently displayed on the chest of all was a gold Follower cross, marking them as Knight-brothers of the order. The legate noted that all the brothers he had seen were wearing armor. He wondered if they ever took off the armor? Did they sleep in it?
The legate looked at the Knightmaster and saw the man staring back at him. His face had the rough and weathered look all soldiers seem to share. His eyes were piercing and the legate was sure the Knightmaster missed not one detail of his appearance and bearing.
“Good afternoon Knightmaster Kenward,” the legate said and bowed deeply. “Thank you for seeing me so promptly.”
The Knightmaster returned the bow. “You are welcome, Legate Tuscus. I understand you are here to discuss the Order's actions in the recent civil war.”
“Some disturbing reports have reached the Patriarch as of late,” the legate replied as he folded his hands before him.
Kenward gave a wave of the hand and the legate came forward.
“These are my credentials,” the legate said and produced a scroll from the sleeves of his robes.
The Knightmaster took the scroll and opened it. For several moments he read what had been scribed on it. Then he carefully rolled the scroll closed and handed it back. “You have arrived just in time. We have only just begun,” he gestured to the knights assembled in front of him. “These Knightbrothers are here to explain what happened at their Chapters and their own actions.”
The Knightmaster looked to the knights and pointed to one standing a few paces away from him. “Continue brother Marcus.”
“We were ordered to stage a major raid into Sathmore. Those orders came from Bishop Ammodus himself,” the blonde-haired knight said. “It had his seal.”
“We were attacked first,” a second brother added. “I knew of the war when one of my patrols was ambushed and a half dozen killed.”
“Ambushed by who?” The Knightmaster asked.
“By Lightbringers,” was the quick answer but there was doubt in the voice and confusion on the man's face. “At least I thought they were Lightbringers. Now I am not so certain.”
“It seemed so clear and simple then,” Marcus said slowly and shook his head. “Now it's all confused and jumbled.”
“It was clear and simple to the Yesbearn knights,” another remarked with acid in his voice. “It still is.”
“Everything seems clear and simple to them,” the Knightmaster commented sarcastically. He opened his mouth to say more but then shut it just as quickly.
The legate was aware that there had always been tension between the two orders. The Yesbearn had always seen the Protectors as too easy going and lax. The Protectors always considered the Yesbearn too harsh and uncompromising. Both the Protectors and the Knights of the Shields despised the Yesbearn. It was one of the few things they both totally agreed on. The last message to the Patriarch from the Protectors concerning the Yesbearn used the word fanatic no less than four times. That warning sign should have been heeded and a legate sent out then. It could have saved many lives. But that side of this affair was already being investigated and was of no concern to him for the moment.
“They had the signed authorization of the bishop himself. They wanted us to provide support for a raid into Sathmore. They said the Lightbringers were planning more attacks and we had to strike first,” the knight explained.
“To protect all the people,” another added.
The legate leaned forward. “What did you do?”
“We refused,” came the answer.
“You have raided into Sathmore before,” Tuscus pointed out, with a quick glance at Harrick who remained at the far end of the hall. “Why did you refuse then?”
“This was different. They were talking of killing and destroying all the unbelievers,” the knight explained. “The earlier raids weren't really raids. Few people are really hurt in the back and forth skirmishing. Usually it was a lot of shouting and punching and kicking.”
“It's mostly limited to stealing cattle and goods,” another added. “Harassment.”
“In other places such behavior is called theft and brigandage,” the legate said. “And here it is normal, nay, expected?”
“It was a release, Father," the knightmaster explained. “There is always tension here between Follower and Lightbringer. Such small acts often kept anger low and tensions at a minimum. It was a way to allow anger to dissipate without open bloodshed.”
“It also keeps this border from being peaceful,” the legate noted.
A knight laughed and gave a wry smile. “This area hasn't seen peace in over five hundred years. Not since the collapse of the empire.”
The knightmaster slowly nodded. “All too true. But perhaps we have allowed such pettiness to go on for far too long.”
Sir Harrick nodded. “This has never been an easy place to rule over but I agree. As knights we are supposed to be above such pettiness.”
“When they asked you on those raids...”
“Ordered,” Marcus interrupted. “They did not ask. They ordered.”
“You disobeyed a direct order from a superior?” Kenward asked in measured tones. “Why?”
“Why?” Marcus asked with a look of surprise on his face. “Because it ran counter to the rules of the Order.”
The Knightmaster gave a nod of the head and a small smile. “I am glad to see that you lived up to the rules of the order. At least in that point.”
The legate glanced briefly at Harrick and then at the other knights assembled. He wondered how many of them took the rules of celibacy seriously. Still, he said nothing of that, for it could wait for another more appropriate time. He had far more important matters to ponder. “When you were ordered and refused what happened then?” he asked. “Did you not try and stop them?”
“No,” the knight said slowly. “But we should have. Brother Karlis decided to not help them but also not to stop them.”
“Where is Brother Karlis?” The legate asked coldly. “He is the castellan here.”
“He was the castellan,” the knightmaster said in clipped tones.
“Where is he now?" Tuscus asked.
“He is dead,” was the response from one of the knights in a pained voice.
“Dead,” came the whispered echo from the crowd.
“His death was,” the knightmaster started and paused. “Unnatural.”
The cold visage on the legate's face vanished, replaced by a look of surprise and concern. “I am sorry to hear that. I'll pray for his soul. But tell me, you say his death was unnatural. Why unnatural?”
“Thank you for your prayers, Father,” the Knightmaster said in a pained tone. “He was a close friend. But of his death...” his eyes strayed to the looks of horror that lingered in the eyes of many of the other knights. “But of his death I cannot speak here.”
Tuscus sighed deeply and nodded. “Thank you. Even though he is dead it seems Bishop Ammodus' corruption continues to claim lives.”
“Indeed," someone answered.
“Is there anything you wish to add or comment?” The Knightmaster asked the knights assembled in front of him.
“No sir,” came the collective answer.
“Then you are dismissed. You have just enough time to prepare for Vespers,” the Knightmaster said slowly.
Both the Knightmaster and the legate waited till the room was empty of all but themselves before speaking again.
“I have ordered the Questioners and Yesbearn out of all our lands,” Kenward said. “At least until we can understand what happened. I have also requested for both to meet me to explain their actions in the recent war.”
“You do not have the authority for that,” Tuscus pointed out in measured tones.
“I do not care,” the senior knight growled. “We have failed in our duties once. I will not let it happen again. I WILL get an explanation from them and I will see justice done.”
“What happened to them?”
“We have not traced their trail of destruction but we have received word that all the Questioners were capture by the Duke,” knight responded.
“I see. At least their murderous attacks have finally stopped," Tuscus noted drily. Others would see to the reform of those orders. “But the chaos they helped create is immense.”
“Agreed but they did not do it all themselves,” the knight said. “A lot of the Followers in the Midlands openly and cheerfully helped. I don't believe all the Questioners took part but understanding what happened in this recent war will not be easy."
"What of the Questioners themselves?" The legate asked.
"I have little so far," Kenward answered. "But it is too soon to know anything solid. All I have is rumor and hearsay. Until I have the facts I cannot condemn them or exonerate them. But I WILL speak with them and find out the truth."
"Finding the truth is never easy," the legate commented.
"I've ordered patrols out everywhere to restore the peace,” Kenward said. “Not just from here but in all of our holdings. I have made sure that ALL lives are protected regardless of who they are or where they are in the Southern Midlands. The brothers are not to take sides in any fighting. They are to end it. No excuses. No exceptions. But we have only a small number of brothers and a large area to control.”
“A wise move. Even a small number of knights will help keep the peace. How many have died?" The legate asked.
“We lost a score of brothers and twice that of lay brothers. Most of the combatants avoided the Brothers. They did not want to fight us openly. We have no idea of the number of civilian deaths,” Kenward answered. “I'm not sure I want to know but it will be heavy. We are trying to help where we can but again we are just a small group. There is only so much we can do.”
“What of the Duke?” The official asked. “Has the Duke contacted you?”
“Duke Verdane has requested an audience with me in Kelewair. I assume that you will be accompanying me.”
“I will,” Legate Tuscus replied. “I have many questions to ask him and to ask of Bishop Ammodus' household. I am sure he has many to ask us.”
“It will not be a pleasant visit,” Kenward commented. “The Duke has never been favorably inclined to the Order being in his lands. Once, some years ago we were asked to mediate in a dispute and we judged against him. And after recent events he will be even more unpleasant.”
“Oh?” Tuscus asked.
“Aside from the destruction and death of the civil war, Duke Otakar of Salinon has taken the fealty of Bozojo. But worse he has also lost his son to Salinon as well."
“Bozojo is on the northern edge of the Southern Midlands,” came the explanation. “It's a rich land with control over important trade routes. The order tries to stay out of such political games but we do monitor all politics carefully. Even so this move came as a surprise to us.”
“Squabbles over land have plagued all rulers, but the abduction of his son... that is something else entirely," the legate noted sadly. “Still, both Dukes are well known to be ambitious.”
“Too ambitious. What of the new bishop?” Kenward asked. “The one to replace Ammodus? Has he been named?”
“The Patriarch chose Tyrion Verdane,” he replied.
"Tyrion Verdane?” Kenward said, surprised. “Isn't he the younger son of Duke Verdane?”
The official nodded. “He is, but he is also a devout and honest man.”
“He has my sympathies,” the knight said. “Taking up such a posting will not be easy.”
“Have you met him yet?”
“Once I believe. He has an affliction of the foot does he not?”
“Aye, he was born with a clubfoot. He too will be in Kelewair.”
Kenward swallowed and then took a deep breath. “There will be a lot to discuss. As there shall between us. For now, you must be fatigued from your journey. I will have Arveline show you to the quarters prepared for you.”
“One thing first,” Tuscus said with a lifted finger. “What happened to Brother Karlis?”
Kenward's eyes narrowed, and he made the sign of the yew over his chest. “When we found his body... beneath the rubble... there was... was... no blood. Neither beneath the stones that crushed him, nor in his flesh. None.”
Tuscus felt a cold shiver race up his spine. “I see...” was all he could say.
"We have had the place where he died cleansed both physically and spiritually," the Knightmaster commented. "We we are keeping a close watch on his body in case something unnatural occurs."
"You expect something to happen?" The legate asked.
"We have dealt with the undead enough in the past to understand the precautions we need to take. Our Knight-brother will rest in peace."
“I will pray for his soul. And for the Order. We will discuss much more in the days ahead. One last question. About the order and marriage," the legate asked.
Kenward scowled. "Twice the Order petitioned the Patriarch about altering the rules to allow marriage. And both times the response was the same. A priest came who asked a lot of harsh questions and made vague threats. A priest that had never been in the Midlands before and one who quickly left and never came back."
"And there was never an official decision on the request?" The legate asked.
Kenward shook his head. "Never."
Tuscas slowly nodded his head. "And you took it on yourselves to decide the issue?"
"We had already waited ten years. How long were we supposed to wait?" the Knight responded coldly. "A decision had to be made."
"The simple fact is we need those knights," Kenward said calmly. "We do not have the luxury of choosing from a large host of applicants. The married knights give a steady supply of applicants. Applicants we would get no other way. The Midlands is not like Pyralia. Here only half the people are Followers and a portion of those are Rebuilders. Within a week's ride of here we have Followers, Rebuilders, Predecessors, Lightbringers and scattered groups that simply defy easy classification. All are uneasy and even openly hostile to each other. Every village could be friendly and every village could be hostile. Often we don't know which until someone starts shooting arrows at us. The Dukes and nobles are constantly fighting and bickering and there is always the ever present threat of Elderwood."
What had seemed so simple to the Father Tuscus - a betrayal of the order's oaths was now more confused than before. The knights words made sense and it was clear the decision had not been made in haste. But still doing so without approval was a breach of the code. He pushed those thoughts aside, that matter was a small thing compared to the real problems. "And what of Marigund?"
"Marigund ironically enough is quiet," the knight responded with a wry smile. "It was the only land not effected in the recent fighting."
"Do you have knights in Marigund?" Tuscus asked.
"No, officially the order avoids sending anyone there. But we do have certain," Kenward paused and pondered his next words. "Friends who see to the order's needs there."
"Does the cardinal know of these friends?"
"Of course but such information is kept secret."
"So you have spies in Marigund?"
"No," came the answer with a shake of the head. "They are not spies. Those people are there to help keep the peace between the different groups. Something best done quietly. Do you understand the uproar there would be if it was even suspected that one of our order was there? So our best strategy to keep the peace in Marigund is to keep our distance."
"So you help keep order in Marigund by staying out of the country?" The legate asked, a little confused.
"Yes," Kenward answered simply. "If we were to move brothers in to help maintain order it will actually make things worse."
The legate sighed. There was a certain, odd, twisted logic to that strategy. "Is nothing here clear?"
Kenward laughed "Nothing in the Midlands is clear and easy. It's not as simple as earth and water. Everything here is muddy mess. Knowing the right choice is never easy here. And sometimes you never know."
The legate was unsure what to expect when he walked into the chapel. He had heard the rumors that the order only claimed poverty but was actually extremely wealthy with the gold and silver hidden away behind fortress walls. The one legend spoke of chapels of pure gold and pews of the finest wood with cushions of silk and damask.
He was relieved to find the interior well lit and normal if a little Spartan. The pews were of a light colored wood and possessed no cushions, just bare, hard wood. The altar itself was a block of dark colored stone and bore a simple cross carved into the front. A cloth of dark blue edged with gold covered the top. The cloth and carved cross were the only decorations he could see in the entire chapel. On top of the altar cloth were two plain, brass candlesticks each holding a simple, white, burning candle. In the center was a large, foot tall crucifix made of yew wood. The walls bore no decorations and the ceiling had a mural of various scenes from the Scriptures that seemed rather drab. He had never been in a house of worship so plain. Even a simple chapel in the poorest village had some decorations. Often made by the villagers themselves and carved or painted with care and devotion. Often every inch was decorated in some way but this place was bare. The legate was reminded that the order took the rules of simplicity and humility very seriously. Tuscus took a spot at the rear and waited silently.
Quietly the Knightbrothers filed into the building and each took their place in a pew without making a sound. In the lead was the Knightmaster himself. All were wearing simple robes of blue with the cross on the chest. It was the first time the legate had seen a brother not wearing full armor.
The man who stepped up to the altar was wearing a cassock and white robes and had a cross dangling from a string around his neck. This was no Knightbrother but a full ordained priest.
The legate looked at the people assembled in the chapel in front of him. Gone were the accoutrements of war. No weapons or armor were visible on the people arrayed in front of him. All Tuscus saw were heads bowed in devout prayer. He could have been in a monastery or a church back Yesulam and seen no difference. The priest started to speak and the legate put aside his thoughts and turned his mind to the service.
The only person in the room when Edmund arrived was the duke himself. The last meeting had been in the Duke's throne room. This time it was in the audience chamber. It was a smaller room with a table and chairs and little else. It had a far more relaxed feeling then the throne room.
The stallion Duke stood up, "Thank you for coming."
Edmund bowed formally to Duke Thomas. "Thank you for seeing me sire."
"I have decided to allow the order to continue in its plans for Fulgar." Thomas leaned forward and placed an envelope onto the table within reach of Edmund. "This letter gives your order the rights and dues of ownership by my permission."
The paladin took the envelope and opened it. He read the letter slowly and carefully and pondered the contents within. The order did get control of the castle and its accompanying town but only at the Dukes agreement. It meant that the Duke had legal power of control above the order. It was a subtle but important point. He was sure that murderous bat Andwyn would keep a close eye on the Order and probably cause his usual havoc and mayhem. But that was a future problem. What was most important was that Thomas had legally confirmed the Order's right to openly station troops and conduct it's affairs in the Northern Midlands. He had to repress the urge to smile and to keep his tail from moving in delight. The Knightmaster would be pleased with how well the negotiations had gone. "Thank you Lord Thomas."
Knightmaster Kenward looked at the knights-brothers in front of him. "This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make. But these are difficult times. None of you are guilty of committing any crimes against innocents but you are guilty of not stopping others from doing so. For that you are all found guilty, for we ARE our brothers keepers and even a Lightbringer is still one of the Great Ones children and deserve our protection. You are all reduced in rank to Brother-initiate. As Brother-initiates you are to proceed to Castle Chough to reaffirm your vows and perhaps in two or three years you will earn the rank of Knight Brother. Again."
"But what happened here is my fault," Knightmaster Kenward said solemnly. "As the leader of the order it is my task and duty to lead and guide all the brethren on the right path. In that I have failed. Therefore I order myself reduced in rank to Knight brother and name Senior Knight Commander Sir Jacob Harrick to the rank of Knightmaster in my place."