Jason R Jones
SOUTH OF GILLIAN, SHANADOR
THE SILVER feathered cross of Alden spins silently as it dangles in my hand. I place it where I left off in this tome, one of hundreds I had yet to search for meaning and answers to so many questions. The priests had given it to me, to use for prayer as my wife was suffering from a pestilence unknown. They told me it would help, yet I had my doubts of both faith and learning. My eyes catch a hint of light down the stairs. Dawn is coming, the candles seem less bright, and I need peace and fresh air. The silent steps I take, the unheard placement of the tome back upon the stack of so many others, all so those above would not wake. I sit outside and await the morning sun, same as every morning for more than three years now. Counting the days, they had not previously mattered, but now they certainly do. The fading green moon, Gimmor, recedes in the dark eastern sky, trailed by the crescent white moon, Carice, a bit further south. Twilight dew has dampened my open robes, they cling to my calves with a sticky cold grip. The sun’s first orange light holds me, then fires into the dawn sky awakening my lands from the small castle, to the grazing fields. Brilliant, fire-orange, and rich light it is, peering over the west, warming in less than a moment. The light and the symphony of noises that follow put me at peace. Birds, owls, farmhands, and within a short time, the rest of the world stirs and reminds me that I am alive and not alone. Every morning I wish for the same, just a small moment of peace without fear or regret.
I arise content from the green, wet grass and quietly walk into my home to get my sleeping son from his crib. The black robes with faded blue arcane designs I wear drag in the wet foliage behind me, and these leather sandals are moist under my feet. Vague and foggy recollections of my nightmares still cling like mud in my mind, dripping off as I wander. Some were mere dreams, yet some were more than that. Some are memories of my past life. I fake a yawn, one of those motions not truly necessary as the yawn stifled before forming, yet I went on with it as if it had. Wishful thinking that it may help distract the dark thoughts out of my waking head. Curses are not fooled so easily.
Dark blue skies give passage to lighter blue, the light blue that matches my son’s eyes as I pluck him from sleep. He is quiet, so still, possessing unspoken understanding that makes me wonder. Every day since he was born, almost a month now, we have this bond and this routine. We watch the sun rise together while the priests of Alden from nearby Gillian tend to his mother. This is a special time just for us when the rest of the world does not exist quite yet. I try to have gratitude. That is a hard notion for me, for all I have suffered for untold centuries. And still am suffering, it would seem.
Alessandeir reaches for my long hair with his little fingers. My hair is streaked gray now and going straighter in these few years from its previous curls and youthful waves. Youth, age, how old am I actually? The thought goes through my mind with laughter not mine own. In the mirror I would say perhaps thirty five seasons, give or take. I know the age of my son, but only the powers that be know my age, since myself and all those that I have known before have been forgotten. Men did not live this long or get second chances such as mine. No dragons nor elves could recall the ages I have lived through, yet not been a part of, since I had not been here for the changing of civilization. Even my wife does not know these things, although I tried to explain it to her, once. Best leave my tales of purgatory and immortal debacle to rot with me.
Two thousand years I was sentenced, and now here I am. For what?
Looking down, my slate colored eyes meet the gaze of my son’s bright blues, and I entertain the thought that my infant son might know. So fragile in my hands he is, so innocent.
“Perhaps you know all about me then, do you not, my son?” I say in playful tones meant for children.
My baby boy smiles and gurgles some inaccurate babble, hoping for more conversation from his father. And I gift him with such for many hours of many days, every morning thus far.
A yawn warns that my embrace and warmth has made him too comfortable yet again. Son in arms, I try and think of my home, this new family, and try to count my blessings in peace and serenity. It is difficult to forget the past, even sitting on a lush, warm country manor outside the city of Gillian in early winter. It is warm and clear in southern Shanador this time of year. Little stirs here so far from any major city or war. Safety and solitude, all my needs met, and yet I cannot feel whole from it, not at all. They are taking her, vengeance has found me, I am sure of it.
The breeze catches my mind wandering to darker times and I can sense my wife in pain. I can hear her move, even one hundred feet away inside the castle walls. Strange that she inspires uneasy tension in my mind. Answers, I need answers to what is truly happening around me, or perhaps what will happen. Some pray, as my wife does, for guidance upon awakening. I will not. Who would listen to me? The gods have abandoned me and the damned would see me dead a thousand fold should they find me.
Sodom, that is a bit extreme, I think.
Yet it is true. There is little left in this world for me, except for what I had just recently begun. Hopes to protect it in hiding and have something to fight for, these cares fester in my chest. There is little peace to be known for men such as me, and I know no one like myself to share this loneliness with. Most, like me, find their peace under the earth at the end.
Share what you know with your son. Then you may find peace.
More voices and impulses form into words not of my conscious design. Perhaps ‘tis madness I have assumed after all, and it is time to end it. I smile at the thought of death, and of how many times I cheated it. Visions of devil women, warrior demon lords, and snarling dragons of hell march through my memory with fire and pain. I do not fear them anymore. I am free. Now, age is catching up, and I feel I have much yet undone and few years to do it in. I do not know how to enjoy life, but have to try, for time is moving for me once more. My hopes lie with the little one in my arms, in redemption. I will not let my son make the same mistakes I made as a young man. My guilt subsides and I choke the depression back with another smile. Even with the grin I watch my back and peer around to see if anyone, or anything, is watching me. I feel it, what it may be I have no idea, but it cannot be good. My thoughts go to my wife, struggling to live, and condemned to solitary time with the supposed holy men who are trying to help.
“Time to see your mother my son, perhaps we will all take a nap together, and after that I will tell you a story,” I whisper, a small falsity.
My eyes close in hope, I turn my head and open them. I want to see the priests waving me into my foyer, a wave that would tell me her sickness is found and cured. It has been two weeks and she has only gotten worse. My eyes open. The holy men have the door shut still, which means we cannot be near her. Every morning the same. Time to pretend I know how to care for a baby boy and occupy the day, as the priests will surely again advise. I see his eyes open once more, my son has come to full awareness under the sky. Crisp winds of Shanador in winter blow across us both, we look to each other, and we know.
“Ahh, you are awake now, are you? You missed the sunrise again, but we have sunset as well, do not worry.” My baby smiles, enjoying my words, wanting more, though he has no idea what I mean, nor will he recall the conversation later. I hear the door open and my teeth grit together. My chest stops moving. I cannot breathe. I see Alessandeir’s eyes look toward the door just as mine own form stinging tears.
“Lord Sodom? Lord Sodom Azarris? Lady Azarris calls for you, milord. Best come quickly.”
My mind tells me it is her voice, but in truth it is that of an old man full of morning rasp and old age that hushes my name. I turn to step toward the doors and Alessandeir begins to cry again. Not for lack of care for his mother, but for the attention and words I gave him in the morning. He knows not what is happening.
Clouds drift in white and orange as time stands staring at me. I hand Alessandeir to one of the priests and his cries echo as if far away. Each step I take is a heavy one. My stone keep seems a tomb already. Up the stairs, past ancient tapestries, and into our bedchamber, I meander without breathing. I can hear the cries from my son. Whispering priests in blue and white robes hold golden feathered crosses and pray as I pass them. And there she is.
I think for a moment there is movement, short inhales and exhales. I try to see a sign, a wink, and my mind wants to see these things. Surely my heart as well. My eyes gaze over her freckled Harlian skin. I brush my hand through her golden curls. Black veins stare at me from beneath her skin, the mother of my son, and neither of us moves. I know that she will not take another breath. My trembling fingers close her eyes for I cannot hold that stare. I feel her skin, cool to the touch, too cold, and I close my eyes.
How I arrive outside on the northern hill once more, I cannot recall. My eyes feel as if they are sore from tears, yet I have none now. I want to scream into the air and over my lands of green hills. Alessandeir in my arms halts that desire. He is crying, the milk bladder is in my hand, yet I am frozen still.
“Just you and I now, son. Just us.”
More crying, yet he will not take the milk from me. He wants to fight for it, he wants words and tales, providing milk was not enough.
Tell him why you are here, share what you have seen.
Why did you take my wife from me? I respond back to my mind.
I look for the voice, a man’s voice. It is not mine and there is not a priest within earshot. The only sounds are a morning breeze and my son fussing.
“Very well. I see you are stubborn, like me. Would you care to hear a story then? Short one though, I do not wish to upset your mother. Although mild disobedience is to be expected.” I comfort him, for how can I tell a baby his mother is dead?
My child smiles, relishing all the words and facial expressions of his father. He knows not how false I have to force myself to be. Those moments, like this one, are what keep me alive and wanting to carry on. The only being in this world that cares for me is here in my arms, though his mother lies forever still in our bed.
Gray and white beards appear out the corner of my eye. I knew there are prayers and many things that need be done. Yet I need a moment or three with the morning, with my son. I want them to leave, to come again when my son is rested and I can breathe again. But that is not to be.
“Yes, good priest, just a little longer. My son wishes to hear a story,” I call back finally, see the bow and nod from the corner of my eye, and I feel it. They stand, three of them, feathered crosses in hand.
Words begin to form in my mind, then they arrange themselves into a beginning, and finally weave through my distress into a story. Not one of my two thousand years of damnation welling out a tale or horror. Not one of the mysterious immortal woman I remember from my days long ago, before purgatory. But one I have seen grow since, a mortal tale, filled with the majestic.
“Let us see here, little one…” I rock my son back and forth, keeping my hair away from tugging fingers as best I can. “Almost ten years ago, while I was in….elsewhere, let us say, there was a great push for reclamation in a cold kingdom to the south of us.”
I walk circles. “Here my son, is Shanador, land of stallions and shields. It is the largest kingdom on Agara.”
Alessandeir giggles as I point north and wave my hand. He is curious, so I show his eyes where I direct my words and free hand.
My fingers flash east. “And there, far away, is Harlaheim, the old kingdom of the crown and rose. Your mother was from there.”
Choking down my tears, I point north. “Kivanis, the land of witches and old superstitions lies there, where my family was from long ago.”
His eyes are ablaze with blue fascination as I whirl around. “Caberra, land of ships and wine, that is northeast a bit. There, to the northwest, far away would be Armondeen, land of the talon and scepter. Due west even further would be the island nations of Yallah and Falligarde. Even further north is the mystical Jal Adeen, where mighty desert princes rule the magical nights.”
I stop with my hand west, where the floods came and covered everything for thousands of years. I think of the priests, the lost cities there, and I remember. Saint Tarumin, the messiah of Alden they say, he had walked the lands four centuries ago and the waters lowered back to the ocean. He united the nations of Agara they said, and then Altestan had him murdered. “We will not speak of the west, son, not yet.” I knew the west, the ancient west that is, and knew it well. It was there I fell also, yet death by enemy hands may have been better than what I was dealt.
I turn my head south, toward the Misathi Mountains, and wince as the winds bring cool winter air to my face. “South, Alessandeir, that is where we will begin. It is cold down south, not like here, they have snow and ice nearly half the thirteen months. Beyond the lands of old Willborne, broken kingdom of the wyrm and sword, there is the southern frontier. We shall begin in Chazzrynn, the land of the Black Falcon.”
“Milord, your wife and her passing must be handled.”
I look to the priest. He looks down from my gaze and stares at his sandals. After a few moments, he walks back to my keep. The other two retain their patience and wait. I wipe the tears that had fallen silently down my cheek. I think back to her, the vision of her still form, yet I continue to speak. Alessandeir stares at me as if he has questions he cannot articulate. Even if he could voice them, I doubt I could answer.
“Lord Azarris, if I may.”
“What is it?” I grit my teeth to keep the pain back as I speak.
“There is much to handle, and quickly, to further misfortune and grief. The plague that has come from Caberra to Gillian via trade, it has a second contagion.” His words are soft from behind the gray beard, as if his white and blue robes had perhaps whispered them from their folds.
“You told me a week ago that after the veins showed and the chills took that no further—“
“Yes, m’lord, yes I did. Forgive my interruption. However, word has come from Gillian that after those infected pass on, the bodies m’lord….they spread once more. I am sorry.”
“Sorry? For what? What is it that you are saying, priest?”
“Your wife, she must be burned. Then we will bless the remains and tend to an Aldane burial. It is the only way, Lord Azarris, and for that, I am truly sorry. Perhaps your newborn son could stay with a relative, as this must be difficult.”
“I have no relatives. As you well know, this castle sat empty, the lands lordless, for many years.” I think of the two thousand years I was gone, the lies I was forced to tell, small as they were. No one can know who I was, and I have no one, not even a trusted priest that I can count on to keep the secrets.
“I am aware m’lord. And that is the reason the child should be away. He is your heir, and we cannot risk him to the plague. To be fair, our concern is for you as well, yet I do not presume to ask a lord to not be present at such a time.”
The breeze speeds up its travels, the sounds of life and land are muffled as gray clouds try in vain to shut the sun from the sky. My air returns, my mind finding peace in my son’s eyes once more.
“What would you recommend, were I not a lord?”
“Three hours alone. Let us say the prayers, bless the body, and burn the plague from the flesh in God’s name. Return then, once your chambers have been blessed and cleansed. We will hold the prayers and burial until your return.”
The words were hard to get out, I can tell. Despite his age, his holy position, I can also tell this is not the first time he has spoken them. The plague, whatever it is, has already killed hundreds, and is spreading. No cure, no hope, just isolation and prayer. This man has seen it, he knows his risk, and our risk should we stay. Against grief and anger, my mind chooses to listen to wiser words.
“I shall take a walk, to the west, with my son,” I whisper, not sure if the priest even hears me as my feet begin slow regretful steps.
“Alden be praised, m’lord.”
The priest, a man perhaps twice my appearing age, walks toward me with a brisk pace I would have thought impossible at seventy years. The sign of the feathered cross, up then across to the heart and circled with his right hand while clutching his pendant with the left, and then he kneels. Whispered words in Agarian and the mostly forgotten Carician prayer tongue come forth, more to himself and God than to us.
“There is no need, priest. Get up to Alden’s work then, and let me walk.” I wish no prayers, but slip him three silver stallions from pocket to hand as I help him to his feet. A bit of shame washes over his face, and as he moves to disagree, I wave my hand that he should keep the coin regardless of intention. Alessandeir is gazing at the sky, tucked in my left arm against my chest. The silence lasts forever, though really less than a few moments.
“M’lord, may I ask something once more?”
The stare I receive has nothing to do with Gabrielle, the plague, or her passing. His eyes of dull blue, faded with age, tell me something else is on his mind.
“Go on then.” I am intrigued, frightened even.
“When I asked if you or the boy had living relations, you hesitated and looked up and away.”
“In my experience, when a man looks away, he does not want to answer truthfully. When he looks down, it is shame and humiliation he seeks to hide. When a man looks to either side, he is afraid or mistrusting, but too fearful to state it, so he avoids. But when a man looks up, he is searching for the correct or best answer to give, because he respects the question or the person asking it, but cannot be honest.” The priest smiles as he looks again into my eyes.
He has me, regardless of the centuries I have endured in purgatory, this man knows without doubt I am hiding something. His years have been spent here, with men, in faith, and he is more than aware when I said I had no relations that it was mistruth.
“Yes, I do have one long lost living relation. Though, he is unaware of it, and it shall remain that way.” My mind recalls the ages I had secretly watched my family line dwindle over two thousand years to just one being. One orphan, after all the changes of time and name, and he knew not of me, much like the rest of the living world. And that was how I thought best it stay.
“That is most sad, m’lord. I sincerely hope that God sees fit someday that your heart and path will see to reparation in the matter.” He pauses, looks back over his shoulder, and nods to the other priests waiting by the doors to my keep. “I go now. I will see you midday, or thereabout?”
“Yes, yes you will.”
At that he bows, as do I, and we part. I try not to think of what would be done. I shut out her face with the sky and wind. My mind quiets its anger and disbelief by looking to the eyes of my son. All the hurt and hate that wishes to surface and unleash to the world, it goes elsewhere, for now.
“I shall tell you of Sir James Andellis, my child, for he is the beginning, I would suppose.” A story, words of comfort for us both, it came from visions I had stolen over so many years.
Our eyes meet and I can tell he is content, for the milk is being drunk from the bladder in my hand. He does not know his mother is gone. I try to continue, for I know not what else to do. I walk past the stables, the horses are quiet, the smells hidden by morning dew.
“The floodwaters had receded over the last few centuries in Chazzrynn, revealing lost ancient cities in ruin. Teirenshire, Arouland, and the city of Linn were once there, still there. However, those that took residence were not native. The ogre tribes had moved in decades before, streaming down from the Misathi and Bori Mountains unseen.” Unblinking, my child stares at me, hearing the words flow from my lips and chest like it was yesterday’s tale.
“This kingdom, Chazzrynn, had already lost two princes out of three in the war with Harlaheim, so the king was hesitant to send his best soldiers, or himself, with but one young heir remaining. The battles with King Richmond the First still lingering, Willborne turning sides with mercenary coin, a few tribes of ogre were not a major concern. Hordes of them threatened the south, in truth, yet proof had yet to be found. To help the brave knights of Southwind Keep, the elite cavalry of the western borders, King Mikhail Salganat only sent his reserve army. He knew victory over the ogre was certain in any regard.”
“Of their number in Southwind there is one knight that I should tell you about, my boy, for his story is much like my own. The orphan James, of house Andellis, was not the bravest, boldest, nor the most skilled knight with a blade. But one with a gift and a certain disregard for death….and the people he would meet seemed to have that same disregard. And, as the good priest of Alden so well divined, he is our only living relation. This secret is known only to you and I, unless anyone else would be spying at the moment.” I chuckle as I turn around, not wishing to tempt my curses into action or presence. No one there, just my son and I and the trees that held root in the rolling hills of southern Shanador.
“Ddda…ooh…ahhh…da deh du?” Alessandeir wishes to speak like me, has been practicing for some time now.
“Yes, of course, very good son, very good. Shall I continue?”
I look into my boy’s eyes, follow his lips into a curling smile of anticipation, and wait until his voyage into words was content for now. I am as amazed as he was. I relish every sound he makes. “Where was I? Yes, James Andellis and the battle of the Arouland Ruins, you are correct, son. Chazzrynn had decided to retake their western lands and it was cold indeed the morning of the battle. A young rider for Southwind Keep, and the right hand of Lord Arlinne T’Vellon, James was to be mentioned for knighthood soon after this battle was over. He was finishing prayer as the sun rose in the west…”
The Last Pantheon: Of Spiders and Falcons is available now at OlorisBookShop.com.