City of Divines
A few days passed until the story of ‘The Swordsman and the Queen’ was replaced by more dire tidings. The first soldiers from the Mearcian army arrived, sent ahead to bring word of the battle and their defeat. Within an hour, the news spread across the entire city. As the soldiers were brought to the first district to tell their tale, they did not have to go inside the palace; the members of court were so anxious to hear the news that they came half-running out of the palace to greet the exhausted soldiers. Thus in the courtyard between the district wall and the palace building, the queen and her retinue received the messengers and bade them speak.
“The outlanders won the field,” one of the soldiers panted as they knelt before their queen. “There were more of them, and their horsemen stopped our knights. In the end, our footmen fled.”
“How is this possible?” demanded one courtier to know. “How could you be defeated by this rabble, these barbarians?”
“With respect,” another soldier said after regaining his breath, “their arrows and swords were still sharp. If you doubt that, they will be here soon enough.”
“How severe were our losses?” asked Irene, cutting through the clamour of the court surrounding the arrived soldiers.
“Heavy, but not catastrophic,” said the first soldier. “Though we do not know what happened to the knights.”
“How do you mean, you do not know?” Irene asked sharply.
“Last we saw, they were fighting to hold back the outlanders and cover our retreat. They did not join up with us afterwards, so we presume they have fled elsewhere – or they are dead.” This response caused a new wave of wailing throughout the courtiers at the thought of five hundred knights slain.
“Our commanders?” Irene continued her questioning. “Are they all dead?”
“Not all,” came the reply. “It was Sir Leonard who ordered the retreat once the battle was lost, saved our remaining men. The others are presumed dead.”
“What of Lord Stephen?” asked Theodora, her voice slightly shaken. “The march warden of the South. Was he not in the retreat?”
“He was not,” one of the soldiers said with regret in his voice. “The flank under his command fell to the outlanders shortly before our retreat. I am sorry, Your Majesty, but it seems he was lost on the field.”
Beatrice, the queen’s mother, had been standing by her daughter’s side. Upon hearing such news of her husband, her face became white as ash and she turned, walking into the palace with hasty steps. Noticing her mother’s departure, Theodora wavered but found herself steadied by Irene’s hand on her shoulder.
“Be strong,” she whispered to the young queen. “The court is watching and weighing your reaction. You must show strength,” Irene reiterated. Looking around, Theodora could see her courtiers gazing at her, most notably the counts of Lykia and Larisa, who had not fought in the battle. The queen composed herself, cleared her throat, and thanked the soldiers for bringing word of the battle to the city.
“Poor Beatrice,” Diane said, watching the lady exit from the courtyard. “She was always a bit sensitive. Not meant for the harshness that life can offer.”
“Losing her husband, I think she has a right to be sensitive,” Leander mumbled.
“No offence was intended,” Diane said. “When did you become so attentive to others?”
“She always treated me well,” Leander replied. “I am going inside to speak with her.”
Diane watched her son walk into the palace. As she turned her head back towards the crowd, her eyes were caught by movement to her other side. A man in a white robe moved up next to her; although his hood covered most of his face, he was able to make eye contact with Diane.
“Are you mad? People could be watching,” she whispered.
“Then act natural,” came the reply from Renard. “My master has heard the news as well. Soon the remainder of the army returns. We cannot wait any longer.”
“Fine,” Diane said quietly without looking at the priest. “I will bring Leander later today. Now leave,” she added with a hiss. Without acknowledgment or a glance in her direction, the white-robed priest left, disappearing into the crowd of courtiers and servants.
The messengers bringing news from the marshal of their defeat had arrived after noon, leaving the court in turmoil, and chaos reigned in the ensuing hours. Therefore, it was almost evening when Diane sought out her son in his private chamber. She found him in the last moments of changing clothes before he took out a cloak.
“Are you on your way out?” Diane asked.
“I promised a friend to meet him in one of the lower circles this evening,” Leander explained, clasping the cloak around him.
“That bard, no doubt,” Diane speculated, unable to hide her disdain entirely.
“You need not make your disapproval known,” Leander smiled sardonically, “I am well aware of it.”
“I did not come to quarrel,” Diane said quickly. “Would you accompany your mother to prayer? Afterwards I will not stand in the way of your plans. It need not take long.”
“If you insist,” Leander replied, sounding a little bewildered.
“Good, thank you for pleasing your dear mother,” Diane exclaimed. “We just need to walk by my chambers, I need a cloak as well. There is a bit of a chill in the evening wind.”
“The shrines do not even have windows,” Leander said questioning.
“We are not going to a shrine,” Diane said, smiling as she took her son’s arm and led him out of his chamber. “I had one of the temples in mind.”
They left the palace and walked down the city circles to the third district containing Tothmor’s six temples. The city was still humming from the news of a disastrous defeat, and the streets were crowded, especially in the third circle with many people turning towards the gods.
“You need not look dissatisfied,” Diane reproached Leander. “This is not a long delay.”
“I am not dissatisfied,” Leander claimed, “just not understanding. I do not recall ever seeing you go to a temple before.”
“I am getting older. I have no husband and only a son that rarely spends time with me. It is not strange that a woman should turn to faith,” Diane said in a coquettish voice, which despite his misgivings made Leander smile.
“As you wish, Mother. Which temple are we visiting?”
“Hamaring,” Diane said in a brief manner.
“The Lord of the Mountain? I thought your devotion was mostly to the Lady of the Forest.”
“It is true that I am more inclined towards Austre’s faith,” Diane admitted, “but Hamaring has his appeals.” With those words, they turned inside the temple belonging to the white-robed priests.
They walked through the entrance and into the altar room of the temple. In that respect, this particular temple differed very little from others; the only key difference was the statue by the altar, which depicted a man in bearskin holding a great hammer. First the lady and then her son approached the altar, making obeisance to it and showing the deity respect. When it was done, they left through one of the doors and let the next supplicants move forward.
“I thought you wanted to come here to make an offering,” Leander began speaking, “but you left nothing at the altar.”
“Come this way,” Diane said, sidestepping the implied question.
She led her son through some of the temple corridors deeper into the small complex. This was where the warrior monks of Hamaring slept and worked. Without hesitation or knocking, Diane opened the door and walked through, followed more cautiously by Leander.
Inside the room sat Bernard, the leader of the white-robed priests in Tothmor. By his side stood his aide, Renard. “Finally,” the high priest grumbled. He rose and revealed himself as much a bear of a man as the statues of the god he served. In contrast, the wily Renard next to him had the appearance of a fox.
“Mother,” Leander said hesitantly, “what is going on?”
“My dear son, the high priest is here to make you an offer,” Diane said smiling. Leander looked at Brother Bernard with raised eyebrows.
“It is quite simple,” the big priest said. “I will make you king.”
Leander stood with open mouth as he processed this. “What?” he finally managed to say.
“As said, quite simple. There are many who would support you, Lord Leander. A weakling woman sits upon the throne of Hæthiod while the son and true heir of our late king has been thrust aside,” Bernard explained. “We will correct this situation and place you upon the throne.”
“I see that priests of all colours are plotting treason now,” Leander mumbled. “Though even the geolrobes did not dare go this far.”
“Those mewling fools,” Bernard spat. “With their petty intrigues. The strong takes what is his right, and so should you! You are King Everard’s son, now succeed him!”
“Exactly how? A revolt is not simply done. They require armies, not to mention they tend to precipitate civil wars. And we are already at war,” Leander argued.
“Precisely,” Bernard retorted. “A woman cannot lead us in war. This city is doomed if dependent upon the usurper Theodora.”
“You alone can save the city, the realm, your father’s realm,” Diane urged her son.
“You have not answered my question as to how,” Leander pointed out.
“There will be no civil war. We have compatriots among the guards. Tomorrow morning at dawn, twenty of our brothers in the cloth will be allowed through the gates into the palace,” the high priest elaborated. “Along with our allies in the guard, we will take control of the palace and the gates for the upper circles. Nearly all soldiers remaining in the city are in the lower circles already. We will depose the usurper queen and crown you king.”
“You are certain you can take the palace?” Leander asked in a neutral voice.
“We have enough swayed to our cause,” Bernard smiled. “Even some of the courtiers.”
“Who?” Leander asked sharply. “The counts?”
“You do not need to know their names until after it is accomplished,” Renard quickly said before the high priest could answer.
“You truly believe this plan is feasible?” Leander said after a brief pause.
“The queen will be in our hands as will the court and all remaining noblemen in the second district. They will bow before you or lose their heads,” Bernard said satisfied. “Already many in the city are singing your praises. They will welcome a strong king who can protect them from the outlanders, like your father did.”
“And your payment? For I presume you do not offer me a crown free of charge,” Leander said with a sardonic smile.
“It would be my honour to serve as court seer to Your Majesty,” Bernard offered with a short inclination of his head.
“Anything you could ever desire, Leander, will be yours,” Diane added in a low voice. “All would bow to you. Any woman you could desire would fall at your feet.”
“Theodora,” Leander breathed. “She is my cousin.”
“You will decide her fate,” Diane smiled. “The dungeons or anywhere else you might have in mind. As king, whatever you wish will be done.”
“She will not be harmed?” Leander questioned.
“As said, it is up to you, my son,” Diane assured him.
“This is not an easy decision to make on the spur,” the youth muttered.
“It must be now,” Bernard said sharply. “We will not wait any further.”
Leander took a deep breath. “Very well. I will do it,” he finally said.
“Good,” the high priest nodded while Diane gave a relieved smile. “To be honest, I had my doubts. I am glad to see not only King Everard’s blood but also his courage was passed on to you.”
“Tomorrow at dawn, you said?” Leander asked, which the others in the room confirmed. “I will leave now rather than linger. I am expected elsewhere in the city.”
“Are you really going to the lower circles? Should you not return to the palace with me?” asked Diane.
“I should stick to my routine,” Leander countered. “It might arouse suspicion if I suddenly changed my habits, and we do not want to invite scrutiny.”
“His lordship may have a point,” Renard conceded.
“Best that I stay away from court until the appointed hour and the deed is done. I have no desire to take unnecessary risks,” Leander continued.
“As you say,” the high priest granted.
“Brother Bernard, can some of your temple guards escort my mother back to the palace?” Leander asked.
“Of course,” Bernard growled.
“My thanks.” Leander gave a small bow and left.
“He really committed to it,” Bernard said with a growing sense of realisation in his voice; there was still a lingering frown on his forehead. “I had my doubts until the end.”
“My son is no fool,” Diane remarked, “even if he portends to be. Who could refuse kingship when offered on a platter?”
“Not your son, it would seem,” said Renard. “I will find a guard to escort the lady,” he added and left the room as well.
“The schedule is very strict, however,” Diane complained. “Tomorrow already?”
“With the army defeated, they will be retreating here,” Bernard explained. “It had to be now, or it would be too late. Besides, aid from Korndale is on its way. Once the siege is lifted, you want your son recognised as the man who defended the city, would you not?”
“I suppose,” Diane agreed. “What would you have done if my son had declined?”
“Restrained him here and found another candidate. We would have had to delay, perhaps, but if it could not be any other way,” Bernard spoke with a shrug. “There are many who are unsatisfied with a female ruler, Lady Diane, many who will applaud our actions when we supplant the queen with a king. Your son was the most obvious choice,” Bernard admitted, “but not the only. Finding a nobleman in Tothmor who would seek to be king is like searching for a bear that likes honey,” the high priest smiled.
Renard returned along with one of the temple’s warriors, who was holding a large war hammer as his weapon. “See the lady home,” he commanded the guard.
With her escort, Diane took her leave of the two white-robed priests. “Follow the boy,” Bernard muttered to Renard, who nodded. “Just in case he might do anything to endanger our plans.”
Back on the street, Leander left the third district and moved down into the city. He walked with hasty steps, occasionally bumping into other people or tripping. Finally, he reached his destination in the fourth district, which was a seedy tavern. He pushed the door open and all but stumbled inside. People gave a few looks but quickly resumed their discussion about the war. Leander’s eyes darted in every direction until he recognised a feathered, red cap. “Troy,” he said, pushing his way over to his friend. The bard sat with a cup of wine in front of him, which Leander grabbed and emptied.
“Steady on, man,” Troy frowned.
“I have to talk to you,” Leander said quietly. “About a serious matter.” He glanced around until he found an empty chair and grabbed it, dragging it over to sit down.
“Last time we had a serious conversation, it ended with priests plotting and you about to die,” Troy said suspiciously.
“It is one of those again,” Leander admitted. The expression on his face told its own grave tale.
“Hel below,” Troy swore. “What’s wrong with these robes? Don’t they have duties, like animals to sacrifice, prayers to pray?”
“Troy, listen to me. It is worse this time.”
“Sorry,” Troy mumbled. “Tell me.”
“The whiterobes are planning a revolt. They will take control of the palace and depose Theodora.”
“Salt my arse,” Troy cursed, eyes widening. “That is worse. Why are you telling me? Go, run, tell the queen!”
“Because it’s me they want to put in her place,” Leander hissed as he leaned forward, and he glanced around to see if anybody took note. “All this treason is for my sake. I will be the king traitor!”
“Salt me twice,” Troy exclaimed. “Wait, this takes a lot of planning. How long have you known this?”
“I only just found out. They enlightened me of their plans, and I pretended to agree.”
“Why didn’t you spit in their faces?” the bard asked, sounding offended at Leander’s pretence.
“I was inside their temple,” Leander said impatiently. “I doubt they would have let me walk out alive. People planning treason are rarely magnanimous about who knows their plans, Troy.”
“Why were you in their temple?”
“I was – that is immaterial. Question is, what in Hel’s name am I going to do?” Leander winced.
“Tell the queen? You’re not guilty,” Troy suggested.
“The fact that this is all in my honour begs to differ,” Leander retorted. “Not to mention, they have compatriots among the palace guards. That is how they will get in and execute their plan. If I try to warn anybody, chances are they will kill me too while they have their hammers out anyway.”
“So… who can you trust?” asked Troy.
“Permit me to cut in,” Godfrey interceded, and he swooped in with his own chair to sit down at their now rather crowded table.
“You? Wait, have you been listening in?” asked Troy.
“I was following him,” Godfrey said, nodding towards Leander. “Well, I was following the whiterobe who has been following him since he left the temple of Hamaring.”
“I have been followed?” Leander blurted out, looking everywhere in the room for a white robe.
“He is not in here,” Godfrey said. “He is more cunning than that. We have a brief while to talk.”
“Wait, return to former question. Have you been listening in?” Troy repeated.
“Yes,” Godfrey admitted. “When I saw the priest following you, I figured I would keep close. I did not realise you would hand me the keys to the riddle so easily.”
“This conversation is several steps ahead of me,” Leander complained. “Who in Hel’s unholy name are you, and any reason I should not be stabbing you for spying on me?”
“First question, I am Geoffrey. Second question, because I am also armed with a sword and considerably better at wielding it than you.”
“Oh,” Leander said dismayed. “It always comes back to that.”
“As for the question you did not ask but should have, I am here to help. Well, sort of. You are going to help me.”
“Us? You? What, how?” Troy asked confounded.
“While your revelations concerning the whiterobes were illuminating,” Godfrey said, “it goes deeper. There is a sinister force at play in this city, and it has infiltrated the priests of Hamaring.”
“You told me of that,” Troy said eagerly.
“Indeed,” Godfrey nodded. “This affair is more rotten than is apparent. There are outlanders in the city or people in league with them. The dissatisfied, the disinherited, the downtrodden, they have been swayed towards a faith that is wholly hostile towards not just Hæthiod, but all of Adalmearc.”
“That does not sound ominous at all,” Leander mumbled sarcastically.
“How does this fit in with the whiterobes?” asked Troy.
“Think,” Godfrey told them. “The priests seize control of the city. Their own people man the gates, control who goes where. Once the siege begins, the gates are opened from the inside, and the outlanders storm in.” Godfrey’s two companions sat in stunned silence, neither able to respond. “Right now, the three of us are all that stand against this scenario happening,” the vagrant told the bard and the prince.
“It would seem the city is doomed,” Leander muttered, finding his wit again.
“When are the whiterobes making their move?” asked Godfrey.
“Tomorrow, at dawn. They have some pretext for entering the palace, somebody letting them in. Then they and the guards siding with them will take control,” Leander explained.
“That narrows our choices, but I have had worse,” Godfrey said to himself. “We have to take action now. There is still some daylight left before last bell. Before the district gates are locked,” he said, adding the last sentence when he saw looks of confusion.
“But what do we do?” Leander asked.
“We must find soldiers who can fight the rebels, whose loyalty is not in question. Are there any knights in the city or Order soldiers from abroad?”
“I do not think so,” Leander shook his head. “Their garrison in the inner circle is empty.”
“A time like this we could have used the King’s Blades,” Troy sighed. “They were loyal, at least.”
“Wait,” Leander said. “Who says we do not have them?”
“They were disbanded,” Troy said with a look towards Leander. “Years ago.”
“But they are still here,” Leander argued. “Lord Hubert. I doubt he has more interesting plans tonight than stopping a rebellion.”
“But isn’t he…?” Troy’s voice trailed off, but he pointed his fingers towards his head in a gesture meant to convey doubtful sanity.
“We just make sure we point his sword in the right direction,” Leander shrugged.
“He is still only one man,” Troy pointed out.
“What about the others?” Godfrey asked. “These King’s Blades, are there more of them? And can we trust them to be unwaveringly loyal?”
“Loyalty pretty much summed up their reason for living,” Leander said. “Lord Hubert is the only one of them that I actually know, though.”
“It will have to do,” Godfrey declared, nodding slightly.
“Wait,” Leander said, raising his hands in protestation. “In your eagerness to be heroes, you forget that I will certainly be branded a villain. Cousin or not, the queen is not going to forgive me for seeking to overthrow her. Regardless of how guiltless I am, my head is ending on a spike. How about you talk to Lord Hubert, and I take a horse riding west before the outer gate closes?”
“You think Lord Hubert will believe either of us?” Troy asked, gesturing towards himself, the bard, and Godfrey, the vagabond.
“Is there anyone in this city you care for?” Godfrey asked of Leander.
“The queen,” Troy said quickly, answering for his friend. “And her mother. And me, of course,” the bard added smilingly, drawing an incredulous but angry stare from Leander.
“Listen to me,” Godfrey said, leaning forward until his face was directly in front of Leander’s, letting his eyes pierce into the young nobleman. “Can you imagine what the outlanders will do once this city is in their hands? What they will do to those you hold dear?”
“I can,” Leander mumbled. He turned his head slightly, as if trying to look away, but Godfrey’s gaze kept him locked.
“Consider that the price if you choose cowardice. Understood?” Godfrey asked with a menacing voice.
“Understood,” Leander croaked; as he was released from Godfrey’s gaze, he sank back into his seat.
“Good. Troy, keep him to it. Now leave, both of you. Find this Lord Hubert. Time is running out.”
“What about you?” Troy asked as they all stood up
“I will make sure you are not interfered with,” Godfrey told them before separating himself from the bard and the bastard.
As Leander and Troy hurried towards the second circle and Count Esmarch’s house, a white-robed shape spotted them as they left the tavern. The figure kept close to them while avoiding attention, sticking to the alleys and shaded corners of the streets. In their haste, neither Leander nor Troy looked back or noticed they were being followed; passing up the street, however, somebody else took note. As the white-clad shape walked past an opening between two houses, a hand shot out and grabbed the neck of his robe; with extraordinary strength, that same hand pulled back and threw the wearer of the priestly garments several paces into the blind alley. The hood fell down to reveal Renard’s face. Before he could recover, the only exit from the alley was blocked.
“Well met, Brother Renard,” Godfrey said with a predator’s smile.
“How dare you!” Renard exclaimed as he struggled to stand up. “I am a priest, my person is sacred!”
“It should be clear to you,” Godfrey interjected, “that I know full well who you are. You may spare the pretence.” Eyes darting to the side, Renard weighed his options. From the inner of his left sleeve, he drew a dagger. Godfrey’s response was pulling his cloak back and drawing his sword. “You may spare that as well,” Godfrey remarked, but Renard’s eyes were fixed on the blade. Patterns of waves danced up and down the steel.
“Where did a vagrant like you come by such a sword?” the priest asked in disbelief.
“I will ask the questions,” Godfrey commanded. “I know there are outlanders in this city. I have shadowed them, seen with whom they meet and shadowed those in turn. I have observed their prophets and madmen in the streets, I have seen their followers. And I have seen all of this converge around the temple of Hamaring.”
“How clever you are,” Renard sneered. “Clearly you are more than meets the eye. But it is all in vain. Soon he comes.”
“The god in the mountain,” Godfrey smiled mirthlessly. “That is whom you await.”
“Yes,” hissed the other man. “His march cannot be stopped. He will take these lands, and you will fall before him.”
“Or the reverse,” Godfrey retorted, retaining his smile. He raised his sword in a threatening gesture. “Enough of that. You will tell me the names of all involved. Every man and woman that you have enticed to your faith, all of whom you have deceived.”
“I am ready to die for my faith,” Renard said with a sudden smile. “Are you?” Before the other man could react, Renard stabbed himself in the throat with his knife. Godfrey rushed forward but too late; the false priest fell to the ground and bled to death within moments. A red stain quickly spread across his white robes.
“Well, damn,” Godfrey muttered. Glancing around, he sheathed his sword and disappeared from the alley.