So, I’m Out Of The Good Stuff
February 17, 2012
By that I mean I do not have any finished writing available to post today. But I do have something really raw that I’ll post. It’s what I’m working on for a fantasy fiction contest. I could use the prize money and, well, exposure right?
This is The Grey Paladin, a fantasy story that I’m doing a lot of world building for and something I’m playing with ideas for. So, I hope you enjoy it but please remember that this is really, really raw.
Roan Enora huddled against the wall of the alcove and listened to the wind whipping across the small opening, whistling softly as the night went on. Smoke, the masque disciple who she had found on the road up the mountain, was softly sleeping a few feet from her with his back against the other wall. Between the two of them was his water-pipe, its ever-glowing coals providing the only heat in the small space. They had been trapped in the alcove for several hours. They had been halfway down the mountain when the storm had started. It was a good thing that Smoke had noticed this crevice when he did, a perfect sliver of black in the stone edifice of the mountain that hid a tiny bastion from the onslaught of snow and wind.
Roan settled against the wall, laying her head on the rock, and listened to the sounds of the mountain. She heard the snow beating against the stones far above her as well as the deep, rolling sounds of the mountain’s lifeblood, the magma beneath the earth, flowing endlessly in its underground network of rivers and deltas. She had scrambled in here in the dusk of the day, a natural time to camp anyway, and in the intervening time the heat and gentle fragrance of the masque’s pipe had made it feel as if it were a home. A small home, a temporary home, but still an inviting and warming place. It was as if he had found the eye of the storm and helped her stay here, amidst the chaos of the snow and stone, safe and warm instead of freezing and fighting the wind if she hadn’t followed him. He lay now, an emissary of that peace and tranquility, sleeping softly and quietly as she watched.
The night had become a timeless stream of howling wind, soft breathing, and the soft smell of jasmine tea from the smoldering pipeweed. Roan had lost all sense of time when Smoke woke himself and slid up the wall to sit, facing her. “Good morning, Enora-sister. Take your rest now, as we agreed I will watch you to ensure those under the mountain do not find us.” Roan nodded her thanks and leaned back against the wall, letting her head rest against the stone so the sounds of the mountain could lull her to sleep.
When she woke, the storm at passed. Smoke was sitting outside, on the small path that led down this side of the mountain, inhaling slowly from his water-pipe. He let out long, thin clouds of blue smoke and watched as the danced in the whorls of the wind, hanging in the air like spinning tops. “Masque-brother, Smoke, there was a fool and a bard who lived within my family’s township when I was a child and he told me that all of the shadowdancers live under a compulsion. Much like I am called to justice, to death, and to birth you are called to fulfill a Truth and a Lie. Will you tell me what these are?”
Smoke smiled while looking out over the mountains but kept his voice measured and serious. “Remember this for I tell you not falsely – I may never love, and I must always be truthful.” He stood and spun on his heels, a gentle smile on his face, and gestured to the path, “Shall we continue, Enora-sister?”
The hike was long and uneventful. While her footing was sure, Roan felt like a blundering oaf next to the fleet-footed and light-stepping Smoke. His raven-black and royal blue silk robes seemed to whisper in the air as he glided over the rocks and snow, as if enchanting the world long enough to trick it into not remembering he was supposed to fall. Roan herself, of course, would never attempt what he was doing. Even if she were as lithe and dextrous as her companion, she was bound in iron-hide. Armor designed for her, from nape to knee, covered her in steel plate and knitted steel rings and made her heavy and forced with every step no matter how light the intent. Swinging slowly at her hips, as well, were her weapons and badges of office – her broadsword of silvered steel, a short parrying sword with an intricate guard, and the deep-toned silver bell that identified her as a Grey Paladin. As one of the Unnamed Goddess’s tending folk. One who birthed you, one who protected you, one who saw you off into the Dark Lands where the moon never sets and the sun never rises.
She thought about this as they worked their way down the mountain. Death to the Uran, the people, is sacred and a necessary part of all elements of life. It is outside of Time, and it is the realm of Ur the First. Within Ur was all that Is and all that Was. Ur was who the Thirteen Siblings were before the Uran spoke to them and learned their names, it is who the Uran will become when the Last Cycle is complete. The sun will burn out, the world will go black, and the whole of the things shall crawl toward themselves again in endless night, waiting for the dawn to come once more and for the next universe to begin anew.
Until then, she and the other Greater Children must watch over the world and tend their duties. The Enora-Sisters, who she is, tend to the lives and deaths of the Uran. They were all women, all sister-priests of the goddess Enora and the oldest of the Thirteen Siblings. They were midwives, morticians, and psychopomps who prepared the dying for the transition and told them what they must know to make it through the Twilight to the Dark Lands, and once in the Dark Lands, how to walk through them so they may one day be reborn.
The Masque-Siblings, for Masque’s disciples could be man or woman, were both to watch and record, as well to inspire and assist, that which brings passion to the hearts of the Uran. They were thieves and liars, taking gold as well as hearts, but they were also dancers and warriors who fought for the good and the right in the world. But never trust one to do anything but follow the enigmatic demands of their God, the Masque and Squire.
The third of the Greater Siblings, the first three, was Ulas. Ulas’ disciples were neither man nor woman, however they entered the service, but between the two. While they may be built as man or woman, or neither, in body they are always in mind more refined. The differences between the masculine and feminine are removed by careful study and practiced work. The disciples of Ulas are the students and masters of elegance. Whether the party is a gentle affair in the home of a king or a raucous festival in a mercenary’s camp, whether thieves or priests, no one can drink nor dance better than the disciples of Ulas. For Ulas teaches that long ago we were one being, before the separation we knew not man nor woman, child nor adult, hate nor pain. Just love, expression, fulfillment. This endless dance of joy is what Ulas brings to us through Ur’s ancient ways.
The Younger siblings numbered 10 and had temples and churches across the world, from Kor in the west to Nara in the East, from the Wassen montains that Roan and Smoke crossed now in the north to the blazing plains of southern Voil. In various kingdoms and towns as well were chapels devoted to local gods and heroes from history – magicians, warriors, princes, priestesses. People who had risen up to be leaders and examples to the Uran everywhere. Many of these temples were just a statue, carved of local stone, showing the long-gone hero in repose.
The air was cool and crisp in the mountain as the two made their way downward. Snow clung to ledges and the edge of the path but, somehow, left the small dirt road bare. Smoke’s water-pipe seemed to drift along the wind on its own, always leaving just a bit of slack in the hose that ended in his hand and always hiding from the piercing rays of the sun rather than dazzling in them. Roan’s armor shined dully in the morning light, the intricate designs and ancient spells laid into the steel were the only parts that seemed to catch the light. Every now and then, though, the light from her bell or her sword would reflect off the snow, flashing and waving to remind the two priests that the sun was still bright and harsh in the winters here. Luckily it was just another day until they were down the mountain at the pace they took and they’d be in the town of Havershim by nightfall.
“Tell me, Enora-sister, what brings you over the mountains? I smell rosemary in your hair and your skin is parched and dry, the winters of the passes can do this so I gather you were here, amongst the snow and stone, for several months.”
Roan nodded, mostly to herself, “What you say is true. There was a great many births this season here and many of my sisters were called here as well. The Living God amongst the tribes of Gort had seen a fat year starting soon so children were better born now. I left before the others, however – Enora’s need, her will, calls me south. How far yet I do not know. Why do you dance the spine of the world, Masque-brother?”
Smoke spun about gently and strode backward slowly, watching Roan as his feet sought the dirt without the aid of his eyes. “Well, you know, the normal reasons we stride across the world. Danger. Romance. History. I had just finished speaking to the Masque and Squire when I headed north. It has grown too cold, though, so now I head south.” He let out a long sigh and a cloud of smoke, gently spinning on the wind and stretching into long tendrils like the flowing script of Kor’s scribes, where they record the stories learned by the disciples of Masque. Roan, however, could not read the script – she knew only the harsh but efficient runes of the Routak, her own people, from the valleys and rivers south of the mountains.
Roan frowned at the answer, rolling it around in her mind. The trail wasn’t treacherous at all so she sank most of her attention into Smoke’s answer. It was hard to know what to think with an answer like that – it may not necessarily be true, may not necessarily be false, and she still had no indication of which of his rules was his Truth.
Their climb down continued with these kinds of questions, the tentative inquisition of travelers who found each other upon the road. Roan came to know Smoke’s brothers and sisters of the hearth, as well as his brothers and sisters of the temple. Smoke, in turn, came to know of Roan’s journeys under the mountains, through the dales and forests of Carshim, and one visit, long ago, to Rotan-Urat-Tur, the island nation south of Kor where mountains are replaced by temples of steps thousands tall. They discussed the finer points of Routan fencing. They talked about the meads and beers of the mountains and their passes, and how they would miss them as they went south into places where harsh ales and sweet wines were more common. They spoke for an hour on bread. Another half-hour on cheese.
It was, perhaps, fitting that when they did finally arrive in the late evening at the base of the mountain they went straight for the Horse and Crown, the inn and tavern of Havershim at the base of the mountain. They immediately dived into a dinner of roasted pork and goat, flatbread, gravy, and flagons of a dark and sweet beer made from fruits and nuts. As is the custom in many towns, the local temple set aside a room for Roan Enora, while Smoke spent his night in the longhouse of the inn, playing dice and telling stories to pass the time with the men and women traveling over the trade-roads.
The next morning, Roan set out again along the southern road from Havershim, the trader’s way that went into the lowlands and wound around the rice-growing villages and pig farms that made up the bulk of the region. She was joined by a trading caravan that had business with the larger villages between Havershim and Turkis, the capital, as well as her companion from the day before. A companion, she hoped, hadn’t taken an interest in her. The Uran said in every city and village, no matter where in the world, that when Masque’s disciples take an interest in you, your life soon becomes nothing but excitement and adventure. Roan, for one, could do without so much excitement for now.
Roan’s steps were drawn for her by the Unnamed Goddess. The Goddess knew where she must go but, to Roan herself, this was still a mystery. The caravan was happy to have her along for as long as she would need, since no bandit would be fool enough to raid a caravan accompanied by a Grey Paladin and a Masque. A regular compliment of caravan guards weren’t even a comparison for what either of them alone could do in a fight.The caravan leader, Yorsa, was a kind and boisterous man, well fed and fond of a good joke as well. He didn’t seem to be afraid of bandits in the least but kept up stories of them from his travels to excuse the two warrior-priests following the same roads and eating the same food as the caravan proper.
Roan walked before the caravan, following the winding nature of the flat dirt road between the ruts left behind by thousands of wagons laden with cargo. Behind her was the caravan’s wagon train, six in all, each laden down with goods from the west and the north. From dried fish and good nets to silk and swords. Yorsa rode in the front wagon, next to his primary driver and his wife, Quinta. Each wagon behind them was piloted by a brother or sister of theirs and each wagon was flanked by even more family and hired hands, from cooks in smaller ramshackle wagons to warriors in a professional soldier’s hauberk and carrying spear and shield or sword and dagger. Sitting on the back cart, facing backward toward the receding town, was Smoke. The trail left by his pipe hung in the air like a long thin tail on the lumbering beast that made up the whole procession.
“You’ve brought along quite a few guards, Yorsa-sahir.” Roan looked over her shoulder and smiled to the aging merchant.
“Aye, it is true, harim.” Yorsa rubbed a mostly-clean rag over his face to staunch his sweat. “It has been rough on us these months, there are highwaymen in the area. They rob us of our food, our silks, our swords, and our rice. So we hire guards, and because of that we must raise our prices. It’s terrible. The villages out here are being robbed all the time by the very same bandits. It has gotten so bad that we do not even trade with many here on our way through. We trade weapons and clothes for food, making most of our money when we get to Islay and Thros on the edge of the plains.” Yorsa mopped his brow again and looked down to Gorda, the leader of his mercenary guards. “It has been hard,” he said quietly. “Hard but we still make enough profit every season to make the trip again.”
Roan walked back to the cart and took a long draught from a waterskin hung from a peg near Yorsa, then scanned the horizon. “Where’s our next stop, Yorsa-sahir?” He pointed out to a small town just coming over the horizon. “That is it there, harim. Groat, a small village but an important one. The farmers for miles meet here because it is one of the few places with a large enough plateau for them all. No one enjoys camping in the rice paddies, harim.”
Roan paused as Yorsa mopped his face again and kept talking about how nice Groat was and started listening to the forest. The insects had stopped making their noise and she could hear birds in the distance. As she snapped her swords from their scabbard, she nudged Gorda with her shoulder and started running back to the rear of the wagon train. Smoke was already exhaling a large cloud of smoke, mystically enhanced to cling to the wagons. The guards around them felt the anxiety in the two seasoned warriors and started pulling their weapons out, hoisting their shields, and listening. Still, while the soldiers pulled themselves together, Yorsa blathered on about seasonal festivals. It wasn’t until the smoke became impossible to see through that the old merchant finally stopped.
The trees around them rustled softly. Silently, Smoke brought the wagons together and hopped up to Yorsa’s seat. He pointed toward the village in the distance and counted down with his fingers from five. As his last finger curled into his fist, Smoke leaped off the wagon and Yorsa snapped the oxen, driving them up the road. Without hesitation, the other wagons followed. Just as they burst from the thick cloud of haze and smoke, crossbow bolts flew toward the wagons but were intercepted by needles thrown by Smoke on one side and lightning-fast slashes from Roan on the other.
The two warriors stayed fast with the caravan guards as the wagons raced toward the safety of the town. Behind them, two pairs of guards ran with them with shields and spears at the ready. Smoke slid past the bulk of the guards, plucking his throwing needles out of the dirt, and spun around to face the forest wall. Roan was already near the head of the column and had her swords at the ready, waiting and watching for the source of the bolts. Everything seemed to quiet, the sounds of jogging men and women in armor coupled with the soft hum of insects filled the air as thickly as silence does before a battle. Just as paranoia started to set in among the guards, more smoke exploded on the road – this time thick and acrid, spilling out of iron grenades lobbed from the trees.
The soldiers pulled masks from inside their helmets, locking cheap, enchanted cloth in front of their noses and mouths to protect them from the thieves’ smoke grenades. Smoke jumped into the air and whipped the belt from his robe off, tied iron weights to both ends, and started spinning it around his right hand while his left kept hold of his enchanted pipe. Air rushed out from him as his belt flung out like a giant fan, pushing the smoke from the grenades away from where the guards and Roan were gathered. Roan and the others kicked the now-visible iron grenades off the road as their attackers leaped from the trees. There were eight bandits, clad in black and dark green with metal masks, that landed near the guards. Four soldiers went down in a flash, knees broken and daggers buried in their backs. Two more guards would have fallen if it wasn’t for the sharpness of Roan’s senses and the accuracy of her thrusts.
Roan dropped the two bodies into the dust and stepped back to close ranks with the still-standing guards. They faced inward, spears up and shields readied, with the ring of attackers facing back. Each of the black-clad bandits produced a pair of short curved swords no longer than their forearms with thick chopping blades and wide grooves along the back third of the sword. Swords designed to butcher enemies without armor. The air nearly vibrated with the tension from the warriors staring at each other – armored mercenaries in Varsin steel plates brandishing spears and large shields, Roan the Grey Paladin in her plate and mail with her long Tessonian broadsword and companion dagger, the Korian bandits with their massacre swords, and the slowly falling Masque priest in his leather and chain catsuit who left a weighted belt spinning in the air. It all shattered when Smoke’s toe hit the ground.
Smoke’s hands moved quickly to wrap the hose of his pipe around one of the bandit’s necks. Simultaneously, the guards raised their shields and pressed in, pushing the mass of bandits together. Two bandits slid past the ringed guards, one of them hamstringing the soldier then decapitating him as the bandit stood. Roan parried one of the swords of her closest enemy and removed his arm at the elbow with her broadsword before stepping back and driving the point of her sword through his neck. Two of the guards were able to wheel their spears around and into the shoulders and necks of the bandits while most of the bandits simply tried to keep from cutting each other or being hit by spears of the experienced soldiers. Smoke pulled one of the bandits off of his feet and broke his neck with a sickening snap, using the hose and his arms as a torsion vise to separate the man’s spine. The body hit the dirt and everyone breathed.
Breaking rank, the guards spun together into a line and crouched, bringing their shields out and their spears up to face the remaining bandits. Roan kicked the now-dead man off of her sword and brought her companion dagger down toward the chest of the bandit next to her. Smoke dropped his hookah and its hose in favor of lightning fast jabs with outstretched fingers clutching his iron throwing needles. Two bandits got caught up in dueling with Smoke, trading low sweeping kicks and high jumps along with rapid punches and blocks as the priest kept both backing up toward the forest again. Roan turned from finishing off one of the injured thieves and faced the two who were beginning to run after the caravan.
Roan started after them, sheathing her companion dagger and plucked a steel throwing dagger from a bandolier across her chest, then threw it at the knees of one of the escaping thieves. Smoke flipped backwards from the tree line and threw two of his needles into the necks of each of the men he was fighting as Roan’s dagger crumpled the leg out from under one of her targets. She snapped another knife into her hand and let it fly before pausing momentarily to drive her sword into the back of the thief she had felled with her first knife. The last thief, halfway to the caravan, slumped down as the knife drove its way into the back of his neck.
With that, Smoke’s belt finally fell from the sky and he tied his robe together again. Roan sheathed her swords and unclasped her bell before beginning the Chant for the Dead. The still living guards assisted those that were injured in the brief fray, dressing minor wounds and helping them out of the bindings that kept their shields in place. Smoke inhaled deeply from his hookah and sighed, letting the heavy fragrant cloud drift over the bodies cooling in the dirt before he started pulling them together, in a line, so that Roan would have an easier time seeing them off.
In Morhim, which is their name for the plane they live upon, the Priestesses of Enora (who are also known as the Grey Paladins) say the Last Rites for all of the people of the world. Even those who have wronged the world or who they themselves have killed in battle. The Rites were said in a tongue older than humankind, a language from the time of Ur and the beginnings of the First Way, the magic that mages study to this day. It is the language that Enora used with her first disciple and taught to that girl the prayers that would lead the Dead through the Dark World, the world of Death and Endless Night. With those prayers and the charms and tokens laid with them in the grave they would be able to pass through to the Dawn of new life. To be born anew. Since then, every civilization and every kingdom has come to know these Rites, for without them the world would surely fall into darkness once again. The time when there was no progress and souls were fresh, new, and unwise. Without the refinement of rebirth, new children would be without the wisdom of those that had come before and would revert to greed, evil, and vileness.
Smoke and the remaining guards worked into the night digging graves for the dead. While they worked, Roan Enora sang.