You can find Chapters 1 and 2 here
Sir Markus started at the charred remains of Early Gregory’s Gate House. The damage looked no better in the daylight. He knelt to feel the soot between his fingers, to remind himself that yes, it had happened. Demons from the other side of the world had come and taken Princess Arilune, his love.
Markus winced at the thought of the Princess. He remembered lying next to her just the other night. Her deep green eyes, the bright freckles that dotted her face like a mask, her wild red hair. He remembered the feeling of Arilune’s slender shoulders against his chest, how they rose and fell with her faint breathing. He would stare at her, this perfect, blessed girl that somehow loved him. He always thought she would leave him, but he never considered that she would be stolen away.
The thought made Markus’s jaw clench and he kicked the burnt rubble around him. It had always been Markus’s duty to protect Arilune. Even before they met, Markus was a young palace guard, the lowliest knight in the kingdom having just earned his nobility thanks to his performance in the Westgate tourney and the patronage of his mentor, the Grand Sir Roland. Back then, Markus spent every day in heavy armor, silent and still in the royal audience chamber.
Arilune made no appearance for the first few months of Markus’s time in the palace. Everyone said that she was ill, suffering from a weak heart and rarely rose from bed. When Arilune finally attended court, Markus was ordered to wait on her. He assumed the work would be tedious, helping the frail Princess in and out of her chair, fetching her water throughout the day. But then Markus met her.
Arilune’s beauty was well reported and many in court found it beguiling, but it was not the Princess’s looks that startled Markus, it was Arilune’s eyes. Arlinue had the fiercest look of any knight or beast Markus had ever met. She challenged everyone with her gaze, constantly searching for a fight, for a reason to prove herself. She pushed away Markus’s hand and scared off her ladies in waiting. When in the audience chamber, she debated every noble that sought to silence her, even her own father. The king became so frustrated that he ordered Arilune to leave when they started discussing war with the Lords of the Roor valley, but she refused.
“Would you get her out!” King Baldwin commanded Markus, flicking a meaty finger at his daughter.
Markus bowed and cautiously approached Arilune, thankful for his visor so he didn’t need to meet Arilune’s impossibly sharp gaze.
Arilune shot him a glance that pierced right through his helmet. “Don’t you dare, touch me.” She said, before turning towards the king. “Father, war would be expensive, almost certainly disastrous, and worse of all, wasteful. We can obtain the riverports of Utherinburg through diplomacy.”
“Don’t be foolish, Arilune!” King Baldwin said waving her off, “The Roor are too stubborn to listen to reason. If we march over the border this summer we can have Utherinburg by winter”
“Yes father, and by spring you will have united all the Lords of the Roor Valley against you. Meanwhile Chancellor Edwin’s daughter needs a suitable husband and Fredrik Vunoff of Roorland just had his marriage annulled. A marriage between the two would be a good start, from there we can squeeze them on the salt trade and form an alliance with Sphettra to intimidate them.” Arilune looked around the audience chamber, “You,” She said pointing to a poor scribe, “Get me some ink and paper and any information we have on the Vunoff linage and lands, with a foothold and proper pressure we could make a claim on Utherinburg itself.”
The ling grumbled, but Arilune pushed on, her advance implacable. She wrote up plans, drafted treaties, dug up ledgers. She slew the arguments of battle hungry barons with tax reports and census accounts. She routed the opposition of tariff weary merchants with plans for expanding the timber and horse trade. After a grueling six hours of debate and planning there was no one left standing in opposition, it was as total and uncompromising a victory as Markus had ever witnessed.
Arilune glared out over the stunned audience chamber, a general surveying a battlefield, making sure none of the enemy was left standing. Satisfied, the Princess took her leave. Markus followed, silent and stiff. It was only when then they were deep into the palace, in a secluded hallway, that Arilune unclenched her fists and started to sway. She collapsed against a wall, breathing heavily. Markus went to aid her.
“I told you…not to…touch me.” Arilune said between beleaguered breaths, her red hair falling over her face, obscuring one of her terrible eyes. Markus paused, but only for a moment. He lifted Arilune’s arm over his shoulder.
“I can’t do that, your highness,” He said, “You need help.”
“I…need no one’s…help” Arilune said coughing, blood splattered the cobble stones.
“I’m afraid you do,” Markus said helping to steady the girl. He added softly, mostly to himself. “But don’t worry, I’m still terrified of you.”
Arilune shifted her gaze to him, her eyes a little less fierce, a thin smile on her lips. “What is your name, knight?”
“Markus of Wayfeild,” Markus said
“Very well Markus, if you’re going to force this indignity on me, you might as well carry me.” Arilune said, “I can’t make it very far right now.”
Markus bowed, scooping Arilune into his arms. After that day Markus was always beside her. Arilune was stubborn and impetuous, but she warmed to Markus. The Princess even made Markus her personal guard and took him with her when she went to make the alliance with the elves of Sphettra.
The elven city was the most intimidating place Markus had ever been. Its streets smelled of sweat and cypress, it’s marble buildings all gleaming white in the hot sun. Statues of Anudica, Goddess of war, lined the road to the city center. Each statue was of a different avatar of Anudica. One was a dwarf with a massive hammer and an eyepatch. Another was a tall, muscular woman with one arm, brandishing a long scimitar. A third one, was a sleek archer, posed as if she was leaping in the air, her robes wafting around her as she drew her curved bow, her face marred by scars. There were dozens of avatars, all different, but all warriors.
The elves of the city were just as impressive as their statues. They were all different sizes and skin color, but each somehow perfect, somehow more real, more alive, than Markus could ever hope to be. Schools dedicated to the many martial disciplines lined the streets. Elves wrestled in the dirt courtyards of some, the ground shaking with the push and pull of their bodies. They practiced spear drills in others, a dozen elves in silver plate moving with a speed Markus could barely track, all in perfect unison. In yet other courtyards they dueled with board swords, their sharp blades flashing like a dance, their movements graceful and precise.
Markus and Arilune’s elven guide led them to the Temple of the Spear, Anudica’s holy armory were all her fabled weapons were stored including her favorite, the spear Baulador. The spear was massive, standing wrapped in scared red binding behind the temple’s alter. A new Scared Sisterhood was swearing themselves to the spear when Arilune and Markus entered. They were led to the back, to wait and speak with Sphettra’s High General, who acted as both leader and chief priestess.
The High General was a board shouldered woman in polished ceremonial armor, her face obscured by a tall helm with braided red and white tassels. Her voice was guttural and sloid, each word of the oath she led, a blow that rung through the domed temple. She paused when she saw Arilune take a seat in back. She held up a hand, silencing the sisterhood.
“You” She said pointing at Arilune, “Step forward.”
Arilune wavered for a moment. As ferocious as she was, Arilune was human, the High General was an elf, the descent of gods. But when Arilune stepped out onto the mosaic floor all her hesitation was gone and her eyes sought the High Generals, looking to stare her down just as Arilune stared down everyone that challenged her.
“I am Arilune, Princess of Haskal, I have come to seek an alliance with mighty Sphettra.” Arilune said, lifting her voice so it would carry through the Temple.
The High General stared back at Arilune, her eyes obscured by her massive helm. Slowly, she took off her helmet. She was ancient, Markus could tell even though no lines graced her face. She was old the way a stone is, hard and smooth. The High General said nothing, but went to one knee, all the other elves in the temple following her.
“Praise Arilune,” The High General said, her voice echoing, “Avatar of Anudica.”
The temple went silent.
“Ready?” A friendly voice asked behind Markus, shaking him from his stupor and bringing him back to the burned gatehouse and his stolen Princess.
“Yes!” Markus said more hotly than he intended, turning around to face his old mentor sir Roland. Markus hadn’t slept all night after losing Arilune in the chaos of the fire, he would have raced off to Sphettra himself if Roland hadn’t insisted oncoming.
Roland padded Markus on the shoulder, his voice calm and soft in his ear. It was the same gesture he used to couch Markus when he was frustrated squire. “I know you’re angry, we’ll get her back, focus on what’s in front of you.”
Markus said nothing, he was more than angry, he was furious, and humiliated, and terrified of what the demons would do to Arilune.
No one had ever believed that Arilune was truly Anudica’s avatar. Arilune herself doubted it in private, she thought maybe the elves were being overly generous, giving her the title to turn Haskal into vassal of Sphettra. Arilune saw no other explanation, she was some weak human girl. She didn’t know how to fight, she couldn’t imagine her statue up there in Sphettra lining the way to the Temple of the Spear.
Markus though, never doubted the High General’s decree. He saw the way the ancient warriors of Sphettra, elves who had been fighting the Dianomachy longer than Haskal had been a kingdom, knelt before Arilune. And Markus had seen the way Arilune fought in the audience chamber in the palace. Arilune may not have had any marshal training, but she was a masterful warrior for certain, and to Markus, a goddess.
Markus did everything he could to be worthy of Arilune and to prove her divine status. He trained with the warriors of Sphettra to master the sword. He rode off on quests in Arilune’s name, slaying ogres and battling orcs. He pledged himself to her and protected her from elven fanatics who doubted her claim and assassins from rival human kingdoms jealous of her title. Markus was always there for Arilune, always, until last night.
“Sphettra will rally the East, maybe even beyond.” Roland said, “The dwarves of the north will come, they have always been our allies, even the Enteral Empire will surely act. Arilune was an avatar of one of the Seven! This was an attack on all of Aphetrria.”
“Will they raise an army to march through Korragorra and the Divide?” Markus asked, fearing he already knew the answer.
Sir Roland cleared his throat, taking a moment. “The Eternal Empire is not what it used to be.” Roland offered, “And well, Spehtrra is just one city, even if it is made up of the world’s most feared warriors. It’s a long march to Neradoom and the orcs will throw everything they have at any force attempting to cross the Divide. And after that well, there’s all of Neradoom and the Demon Pit Lords…”
“She’s a god!” Markus said, stamping his foot.
“Yes, but she’s also—“
“Human,” Markus added, grinding his teeth.
Roland tried his soft smile again, “They’ll send a Fellowship for sure, a small team of heroes will have an easier time sneaking into Neradoom over an army anyway. And the Orcs tend to look the other way when it comes to Fellowships, especially if they’ve got some ghets with them.”
Markus let out a deep breath. It was an insult; taking Arilune was justification enough to restart the Dienomachy. But Markus could live with a Fellowship as long as he was a member.
“Have you ever been part of a Fellowship before?” Markus asked
Roland laughed, “No, no I’ve never left the East, let alone travel into Neradoom. I fought a war or two Markus, but the truth is I’ve seen less battle than you.”
Markus looked at his mentor. Roland was once the greatest knight Markus had ever known, but now he looked old and tired; gray stubble lined his dark jaw, and his body was so small in all that heavy armor. Markus knew his next question was unfair, but he had to ask it.
“Will you come with me on this Fellowship?”
“Yes, of course Markus!” Roland said emphatically, before hesitating again. “But they may not take us. These Fellowships, well, they can be a tad political.”
“They will take us.” Markus said mounting his steed. “They have to. I need to save her, Roland,” Markus clenched his teeth, “I need to save her and slay whatever demon monstrosity took her. I need to know he’s dead.”
Roland gave his former squire a troubled look but said nothing. Markus spurred his horse on, steering them east towards the sun, towards Holy Sphetrra, and on towards cursed Neradoom.
Read more Ghets here