I thought that, instead of making everyone read through several different blog posts to gain the entire Immortal Lords story I’ve released thus far, I’d make one post that encapsulates everything.  I will keep updating this post as I release new material, so you won’t have to go back any further than this.

Enjoy.  There’s more from The Immortal Lords to come!


1.

People bumped and pushed and shoved Taneid Valar as they moved en mass across the bridge into the relative safety of the city of Hrith.  City was a generous term.  It really wasn’t one.  There were no walls, no towers, nothing to protect its inhabitants of from the hordes behind them.  Nothing besides the river which looped around it, protecting three sides while the fourth led out to the plains of Lorien via a barely maintained road.  Any trained eye could see it wasn’t much.  And to have any hope of surviving longer than a day, they’d have to blow the bridges.  Assuming that enough powder could be found.

Valar looked over his shoulder.  People, refugees all, stretched back as far as he could see in the darkening sky.  Behind them, the light from fires reflected off of low lying clouds.  Most of those fires marked funeral pyres for dozens of people.  Burned alive in huts and houses.  Crops followed, adding to the chaos, making picking off stragglers even easier.  There was nothing to call it but horror.  Damn it, they were farmers, not soldiers.  At least most of them were.  Worse yet, not everyone would make it.  That would be the hardest lesson yet.  Sacrifice the few in order to save the majority.  But that was its own razor.  A death of a thousand cuts.

He looked at the girl he clutched tight under his right arm.  That wasn’t right.  Senar wasn’t a girl anymore.  She was a young woman in the full bloom of life.  But whenever Valar looked at her, all he could see was the little child who’d come to him with a scraped knee or a bouquet of weed blossoms.  Forever, that’s who’d he see, not the young woman who’d lost her mother and brother to the . . . .

Well, he didn’t know who’d done this.  That was a hard truth.  If he’d seen something that gave the powers behind this away, he might have been able to reason it out.  As it stood, this seemed like random violence for violence’s sake.  And he knew of no one interested in just that.  The Immortal Lords would have removed them long ago.  Nonsense like that wouldn’t benefit anyone.

Senar stumbled and Valar caught her weight without even thinking.  Should anyone go down on this bridge, then their lives were in fate’s hands.  No one would stop to help another soul, not when their lives were in danger.  All around, people’s faces looked like frightened sheep, sent off to the slaughter house.  That was exactly what Valar feared they were.

The houses of Hrith weren’t exactly hovels, but they weren’t much better.  Most of them were made of clay and plaster with thatched roofs.  Distant firelight glowed off none to clean white walls.  Already crowded streets were further cluttered with abandoned wagons, broken water barrels, and other detritus from everyday life.  Most of the residents seemed to be gone, already fled from the hordes almost upon them.   Valar could only see a few people remaining as he wove he way through the hard packed streets—all of them huddled deep within their chosen coffins.

That might have been a harsh way to look at it, Valar knew, but unless they wised up and fled like the rest of them, that’s what they would become.  A few times, he heard the cry of a baby or the whimper of child not yet old enough to clothe himself and he almost stopped and searched it out.  He resisted, though it tore his heart apart each time.  There was little he could do for them, lest he wanted to be responsible for an army of children.  He had his own problems, but he silently cursed the parents who would lead their child into death.  More than once, Senar looked up at him at the sounds, as if her thoughts mirrored his.  At those times, he added an extra curse for the men who forced him to seem heartless to his own daughter.

Despite the press of people attempting to find safety across the bridge, the flow of people through the streets was a fitful one, with everyone stopping and going at seemingly random intervals.  As they progressed through the city, Valar started to see why.  With the progressively better built homes, soldiers garbed in the blue uniforms of local militia started appearing, blocking off streets and directing traffic.  More than once, he saw a family try to dodge down a side street to make better time only to be pushed back by an officer here, a patrol there.  Valar wondered if they were trying to help everyone or just protect the houses of those wealthy enough to deserve special treatment.  He suspected the later, as occasionally he’d see a wagon stuffed to the gills escorted by soldiers down the street as the merchant or lordling and his family rode beside, a look of superiority written clearly on their faces.

A sudden boom sounded, echoing through the streets so that it was impossible to tell which direction it had come from.   Most people in the crowd screamed and attempted to run in any direction but that in which they’d been heading.  Cries of “Cannon” and “They’re attacking” seemed to come from every throat.  A few people even dropped to their knees, clutching their heads in their hands and crying that they didn’t want to die.  No one wanted to die.  That was a stupid comment if Valar’d ever heard one.

That hadn’t stopped him from crouching at the noise however, still clutching onto Senar.  As he returned to his full height, she looked up at him, eyes searching.  “Is that—Are they here already?”

Valar shook his head.  “No.  It’s not possible unless we’ve been stuck in these streets longer than I suspect.  Even then, I doubt that they won’t make it before sometime after daybreak tomorrow.”

“Then what?”

Valar closed his eyes and pinched his nose.  “The bridges,” he sighed.  “They’re blowing the bridges.”

“All those people. . . .”

It was for the best, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her.  Let her hold on to the innocence of youth, if only for minutes or hours longer.  If things continued on the path it seemed set on, then she’d lose it soon enough.  He wouldn’t take it from her before he had to.

“Come on.  Let’s keep going.”

The pair of them wove through the crowd, taking advantage of the chaos enough to move faster than they had before.  They had made it several blocks before the crowds started to close up again and they were forced to slow down again.  Another boom sounded then, just as powerful and loud as the first.  Less people reacted than last time, but enough reacted to allow the father and daughter to take advantage of the lull.

Two more explosions sounded by the time they’d made it through the center of town and were heading toward the exit everyone wanted.  They freed up the throng a little.  At least things seemed to be moving faster than they had previously.  That still didn’t mean that things were moving fast.  If he couldn’t have speed, then Valar would accept a steady pace.  Slow but steady was better than fitful hesitation.

Just as the houses had gotten better as they had approached the center of the city, the houses slowly started to resemble those he had passed through as once they had crossed the bridge.  The big difference this time, however, was the people.  No longer did only bedraggled refugees fill the streets ahead, but now so did the cities wealthy.  A merchant here and there tried to save his wares, trying to goad a horse drawn wagon to move imperceptibly faster.  Nobles also were mixed into the throng, leaving wagons and belongings behind and trusting to servants to bring them along after.  Several lay about them with riding crops in an effort to clear the crowds before them—at least on the surface.  More than once, Valar heard a lord curse some commoner for touching his horse or besmirching his clothing, like there wasn’t anything more important in the world.

Such idiocy irritated Valar.  It always had.  They were human, just like those they abused and controlled like so many animals.  He always doubted that the Immortal Lords had set them above everyone else like they claimed.  Of course, to say so publicly would invite retribution.  He’d seen others try and what became of them didn’t bear scrutiny.  Not all lords were that way, but a good number seemed to be.  But question their divine placement, even to the decent ones, and he’d not live to regret it.  Best to just keep quiet.

They’d just reached the final street, the road in sight, when another explosion sounded.  Valar stopped dead in his tracks, holding his breath.  Senar had takedn several steps before realizing her father wasn’t with her.  Fighting her way back to him through the crowd was nearly impossible and Valar only remotely noticed it, just as he barely noticed him grabbing his shirt sleeve and tugging.  That explosion—no, it couldn’t be.  Impossible.

Valar looked into his daughters eyes, knowing he couldn’t hide the fear that shouted in his.  “Love,” he said, “Go.  Run.  As fast as you can.  I’ll find you.”

“Father, what’s wrong?”

He could feel her hand tighten on her arm and his heart broke.  He had to know, but she needed to go.  Leave as fast as she could.  “Go!  I’ll find you in the next town, or the one after that.  If I don’t, head to Bren.  We’ve got kin there.  My sister, your Aunt Cena.  She’s a baker, down in Brown’s Folly.  Find her.  She knows you.”

“No, Father!”  Tears welled up in Senar’s eyes.  “You have to come with me.  I won’t make it without you.”

Tears filled his own eyes as Valar pulled his daughter’s hand free of his jacket as softly as he could.  “You can and you will.  This isn’t the last you’ll see of me.  I promise.”  He spun her to face the direction of the crowd and pushed.  “No GO!”

Senar stumbled, but the mass of people carried her away before she could turn around and come back to him.  The last he saw of her was her glancing over her shoulder toward her as she was pulled away.  Another explosion sounded, same as the last, quickly followed by the crash of rubble and another explosion.  Valar just stood there, watching long past when he could see his daughter.  Another boom, quickly followed by a second.  And a third.  Crashes and screams followed as he stood there, uncaring.

Finally, he scrubbed his eyes with a dirty shirt sleeve, trying to deny the pain he felt.  He recognized those explosions, though he desperately hoped he was wrong.  Tearing his eyes away from where he’d last seen his daughter, he turned toward a church and started moving through the crowd toward it as fast as he could.  Its bell tower was the tallest thing in the area, rising several stories above the other buildings.

The doors were open and Valar pushed through to stand in the darkness inside.  Silence reigned here, causing his ears to ring, used to the ruckus outside the doors as they were.  A few candles were lit near the alter, a priest leading prayer for a few souls who’d rather put their faith in Lura than in their own legs.  It sickened him more than a little, but to each their own.  He’d leave them to their faith and their fates.  To his left, a narrow staircase led upwards.  No handholds to aid the climb, but Valar didn’t notice as he took the stairs two at a time.

His legs burned by the time he reached the top.  A brass bell, nearly his height, hung from rafters overhead.  Slats covered the windows, preventing a clear line of sight with only an inch between them to allow the air to circulate.  Dust hung in the air, which, combined with the humidity, made the room practically unbreathable.

Valar stuck his eyes to one of the gaps before moving on to another then another.  Nothing gave him the view he wanted, needed.  He’d have to create his own, but how was just as big of a problem as breathing.  Gasping for air, he pushed and pulled at the boards.  A good deal he couldn’t get a grip in as his fingers slipped off the wood before he could get a solid grip.  Skin tore as he worked, blood making his grip even slicker than it already was.  Explosions and crashes sounded all around.

This was hopeless.  He was running out of time.  Either he needed another way or he’d have to give up and hope for the best.  Hoping wasn’t going to be good enough.  Valar looked about then grabbed on to one of the few gaps that his fingers fit through and pulled.  Not trying to dislodge it, but rather hauling himself upward.  The toe of his boot found purchase on the framing and he pushed again.  Slowly, his fingers and toes found places to go and he climbed.  With each foot he climbed, the less breathable the air became.  Soon, Valar found himself choking on fumes as he stared at the rope that connected the bell to the tower and allowed it to ring.

Pulling his belt knife loose, he started hacking at it with wild swings.  Logic had started to fail him and sawing at it would have taken longer.  Besides he wanted his arm to be as far away from it when everything let loose.  The rope only needed to be frayed so far before. . . .

With a snapping and crackling sound, the rope gave way and the bell hit the floor with its own boom.  It stood there for a minute gently rocking on a floor never meant to hold its weight.  Wood half molded in the humidity and worn with age wouldn’t hold it for long.  Without thinking, Valar scampered down from his perch and grabbed the length of rope still tied to the top of the bell.  Throwing it around one of the corner braces for the tower roof, he finished tying the knot just as the cracking below him sounded the floor’s imminent doom.

Valar tried to retrace his climb to his perch as the floor fell away, taking half the tower with it.  Wood and debris rained down on his shoulders as Valar clung by his fingertips to one of the slats.  He closed his eyes and ducked his head to protect his face, breathing only as much as he had to.  The air grew dustier than before for a moment, then it started to clear.  And a cool, clear breeze swept in to the tower.

Opening his eyes, Valar could see the destruction the bell had wrought on its way down.  Most of the stairs remained intact, but large chunks were missing here and there.  A few new holes in the sides of the tower allowed light to shine in and making the settling dust look like snowflakes.  On the floor, the bell sat on its side, misshapen and cracked.  With luck, its collapse would be blamed on the oncoming armies, rather than a onetime farmer.  He looked to his side, found a part of the floor which the bell hadn’t removed, and climbed over.

His arms ached as he sat on the edge of the floor catching his breath.  He wished that he could have sat there for a few hours, but he couldn’t afford that.  He couldn’t afford the minutes it would take for him to climb down.  There wasn’t any time to waste.  Groaning, he climbed up and looked through the hole torn in the side of the tower.

The city burned.  Low lying clouds had turned to plumes of smoke, light reflecting and illuminating the night’s sky.  Screams filled the city streets as people charged every which way.  Gone were the few soldiers along with the order that they represented.  Either they’d been pulled back or they’d been trampled to death as people fled.  A mass of people, a living tidal wave of madness, rushed toward Valar.  He could feel the pressure wave as a physical thing.  But it was what was behind them that frightened him to his bones.

Somehow, some way, the horde which had clipped at his heels for so long had caught up to him.  That was impossible.  They had been too far away.  There should’ve been no way for them to catch up so fast.   Yet here they stood at the city’s edge.  Valar could see bodies of their soldiers rushing across makeshift bridges unopposed.  Explosions sounded as he watched cannon shot scream over the city and demolish buildings and people alike to bloody rubble.  This was no battle.

It was a massacre.

“Father!”

Valar stirred at the voice.  That oncoming wave of humanity—that was everything.  There’d be no surviving it, nor the army behind it. The cry repeated itself.  He’d heard that voice before, but no matter.  Nothing would matter for very much longer.  Thank the Immortal Lords, he’d sent Senar away.  Maybe she’d survive this when so few—

Father!

The word, its sheer intensity, jolted him out of his shock.  Rushing over to the hole in the torn floorboards, Valar peered over the edge.  Down below, barely visible in the dim light.  Was that a person or only the shadows playing tricks on his eyes.

“Father!”

No.  No, no, no, no.  I sent her away.  “Senar,” he shouted back, “what’re you doing here?”  I sent her away to safety.  Why, you fool girl?  Why?

“I came to find you.”

“Damn you, girl,” Valar mumbled under his breath.  Senar’s face darkened and her hands planted themselves on her hips, as if she had heard him.  She looked just like her mother when she did that.  The thought came unbidden as he stood there.  In a louder voice, he shouted down to her.  “Stay there.  I’ll be right down.”  He ducked away, then popped his head back over the edge.  “And close that door.”

Valar could imagine his daughter’s reaction to the order.  It wouldn’t be a pleasant one, but this wasn’t any time to baulk.  It better be closed by the time he got down there.  But how was he to get down.

He looked into the hole again.  Senar was gone.  Good that.  But even better was the first flight of the stairwell.  It looked mostly whole and stable.  With a little luck, he could jump onto it.  Then it would be a matter of a few more well-placed jumps onto other flights in order to make it down.  It was do-able, if not fun.

Taking a deep breath, Valar stepped back to the wall.  This had better work. It was either work or he’d land on the floor, flat as a bug on the dinner table.  Then he’d not have to worry about the oncoming army, horde, whatever it really was.  Senar came unbidden into his mind.  She wouldn’t be so lucky.  Not if he armies hadn’t changed since—  No.  Very few things changed in life.  He doubted that would be one of them.  Taking several more deep breaths, he sprinted for the edge and jumped.

Either the space was wider than he’d expected or Valar some of the agileness from his youth had abandoned him.  With a thump and a sudden excelation of air, Valar’s chest landed on the edge of the stairwell, his legs dangling over the side.  His momentum carried him forward however, and he lost his purchase on the upper level.  Flipping head over heels, he landed on his back on the landing below his target.  It was a struggle to hold onto consciousness.  Black spots flickered before his blurred eyesight.  Seconds passed.  Seconds he didn’t have, he knew, before his eyes could focus on the beams above him.

Rolling onto his side, then up to his knees, and finally feet, Valar pushed his body to obey him.  It’d been years since it needed to move and react in such a manner.  But it had once, and it would again.  Unsteadily, he moved to the stairs, hand firmly on the inside handrail, and decended as far as he could go.  His mind had cleared enough by the time he reached the bottom gap to feel like he wasn’t about to fall over with every step.  A second more to gather himself and he leapt.

This time, the landing went much more smoothly.  Taking only a moment to steady himself, he set off.  His speed increased both as he recovered and as he became familiar with the pattern.  That wasn’t to say that he wasn’t in physical pain.  He was—enormously so.  But the only answer was to move forward or die.  Dying wasn’t an option, so he moved on.

Senar had reappeared by the time he’d reached the bottom.  What had once been a white blouse now looked to be covered in ash.  A tear  exposed a decent amount of her shoulder.  At least it fully covered her breasts.  In a mob of soldiers, the last thing any woman wanted was to show too much cleavage.  Her brown skirt had torn as well, exposing a fair bit of calf, but that wouldn’t matter as much.

She rushed to him and threw her arms around his bulk.  “Why’d you do that?  Don’t do that to me again.”

Valar couldn’t control himself.  His arms reflexively gathered in his only surviving child and he could feel tears flowing freely down his face.  Mumbling that he wouldn’t, he stroked her hair.  Then the harsh reality of their situation pushed its way to the forefront of his mind.

Pushing her away, but holding her at arm’s length, he studied her face.  “Did you do as I said?  Did you close the doors?”

She nodded.  “And locked them.”

He nodded and turned toward the alter.  The sanctuary was mostly empty now.  Either they had seen the foolishness of hiding in a church or they’d fled when the bell had fallen.  Both were fine with him.  They were safer out there, in the masses, than in here whether they realized it or not.  Odds were against this building remaining standing when everything was all said and done.

Only the priest had remained.  He stood now, in the center of the alter, glaring harsh words at them.  Valar felt sure that had he not been a priest, and not such a self-controlled one at that, those words would have come fast and furious.  That was the way with clergy.  Probably that also meant he’d have to haul the priest out bodily or let the old man die there.

That was one decision he wouldn’t argue.  The priest could come if he wanted, but Valar wasn’t about to force the man to do anything.

“Catacombs,” Valar shouted at the priest as he made his way toward the alter through lines of benches petitioners would have sat during services.  “Do you have any catacombs?”  His voice carried and reverberated through the vaulted space.  On any other day, it would be a joy to.  But not today.

The priest leaned forward, bracing himself on the alter to stare as the two of them approached.  “Are you the one who destroyed my church?”

“It was for a good cause, Elder, trust me.”  The words came breathy as Valar stopped before the old man.

“There is no cause worth enough to destroy a temple to the Immortal Lords.”

“I beg pardon, sir, but this time there is.”

“You mean those crowds out there?”  The priest swept a hand toward the direction of the door.  “They panic over nothing.  Calm reflection could show you that?  But instead, you come into my temple and cut down the bell.  From here, I can see it’s ruined.  It will be years before we can get the funds for an adequate replacement from the Anthaquim.”

“I’m sorry.  I really am.”  He really wasn’t.  This man was blind.  Worse than most as far as Valar was concerned.  “I will make my dues to you and Her Lordship Lura just as soon as I can.  But now we need to leave.  You too, Elder.”

The priest snorted in disgust.  “Hogswallop.  We need not go anywhere.  You’ve barred the doors.  I saw her do it.”  A boney finger jutted towards Senar.  “We’re perfectly safe.  Now what’s your name?  I want a record of it for when this mess is done.”

“Taneid Valar, Elder.  Now can we go?  Catacombs.  Is there any catacombs under this place.”

“No.”  Valar wasn’t sure if the old man meant that there wasn’t any catacombs or that they couldn’t leave.  Somehow, it seemed to stand for both.  “How many times do I have to say that we’re perfectly safe here?”  He started pacing around the dais.

“We aren’t.  Have you seen people like this before, sir?  They—”

“That rabble is nothing to concern yourself with.  Right now, they are little more than animals, giving into their baser instincts.  But soon enough, reason will restore itself and you will pay for what you’ve done to my temple.”

On any other day, perhaps, that might have held more weight.  To destroy temples risked retribution, if not from the courts, then from the masses.  But for what he’d done, Valar felt sure that the courts would send him to the gallows.  If any courts were to be left after today.

He turned and gestured to Senar to follow him back the way they had come.  The old priest squaked and rushed ahead of them.  There was surprising speed in those old bones.  “You cannot go.  I will have you stay here until this mess,” he gestured toward the bell behind him with his head, “is settled.”

“We aren’t safe here.”  Valar spoke as slowly and clearly as he could.

The priest shook his head and took two steps backward.  “Nonsense.  Go sit.  Think on your sins.”

Valar sighed and a window broke.  It all happened faster than he could see, but old instincts took over.  Glass showered down as he turned and grabbed Senar, covering her with his body as they fell to the floor.  He could hear the rain of debris onto the stone floor.  It seemed to go on for a lifetime and, at the same time, only a second or two.  Senar breathed heavily into his shoulder between frightened sobs.

Once the pitter-patter had died down enough that Valar felt safe for the moment, he lifted his head and looked at his daughter.  Tears streaked her face through eyes clenched shut, but other than the fear that painted her face, she seemed to be alright.  A blessing that, considering the stone floor they now lay on.

The priest hadn’t been so lucky.  His body lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, looking untouched.  Untouched save for his missing head.  That was splattered about the sanctuary.  The cannonball which had done the damage lay in a hole in the stone floor, still smoldering.  Broken and scattered benches were pushed away from the impact by the force of the blow.

Father and Daughter came unsteadily to their feet.  There went that idea.  Sure, he could spend time searching for the answer he sought, but to do so would again waste time he didn’t feel he had.  As the ringing in his ears died away, he could hear cannon shot landing about the city.  That he could deal with.  It was said that it was the one you never heard which ended your life.  A small voice in the back of his head asked if that was true, then how did you know?

Cries from beyond the temple doors grew louder and Valar turned to look at them as the pounding registered.  The plank that Senar had used to lock the doors would hold for a little bit, but it not forever.  Already, he could see more and more force applied to the doors.  That plank wouldn’t hold long.  Senar gripped his arm and Valar glanced at her.  Her eyes were glued on the doors.

He growled deep in his throat.  Had only the silly girl done what he’d said, he’d only have one neck to think about.  No, he admitted to himself, that wasn’t true.  I’d still be worrying over her, I just wouldn’t know how bad it actually would be for her.

Valar’s eyes scanned over the damned priest.  At least now he wouldn’t have to worry about that one man stretching his neck over that bell.  Nor over what he had to do next.

Freeing himself from his daughter’s grip, he reached down and picked up a chunk from one of the benches.  It was too long and unwieldy to do much of anything, but several swings against the stone wall of the temple fixed that problem.  When he was done, he gripped a stick of wood about the length and size of his arm.  A bit of wood he’d been unable to dislodge still clung to the end.  It didn’t really matter.

The pounding on the door had stopped.  Senar took several steps toward the doors, moving most of the rest of the way toward the entryway.  “Father,” she said over her shoulder, “I think they’ve—”

She cut off as an even louder pounding then before started on the doors.  This was different, however.  Not only was it more forceful, but the attacks were rhythmic rather than the individual attempts made by several hands.  No, this was much more organized.

Valar stepped up to the nearest window—a stained glass thing about waist high and depicting Lura’s rising from the sea—and swung his makeshift club two handed.  Glass and lead lining cracked but didn’t give way.  He swung again and again, each time cracking the panes or lining a little more.  A pane even fell out, creating a hole no bigger than his fist, but nothing near large enough to allow escape appeared.  Frustrated, he dropped the stick.  This was useless.

Then a chunk of bench flew by his head.  Wind rushed by his ear at its passing.  It crashed through the window, glass and lead providing little in the way of resistance.  Turning, he saw Senar grinning from ear to ear.

“You always left the hay for Manura and me while you went and milked the cows.  Guess all that work paid off.”

“I guess so,” he said, feeling a smile creep onto his own face.  “Glad that I did.”  A sudden crack from the doorway brought him back to the reality at hand.  He shot a glance at the door and could see a crack in the locking board that hadn’t been there before.  Each subsquient hit cracked the board anew.  It was only a matter of time now before it completely gave way.  Grasping the stick of wood anew, he started knocking loose some of the glass that still stuck to the window frame.  Once that was done, he gestured to Senar and they carried a bench over to the window.

Senar went first, using the bench as a stool to help her over the window ledge.  She dropped down without a word.  Valar went next.  His coat caught on an edge of glass as he climbed up and over, tearing a new hole in the shoulder.  Just as well that.  This coat was long past ruined long ago.  Sleeping in it for a week or two would do that.

He let out a grunt as he hit the ground.  As he stood up, he saw that the alley that ran alongside the temple dropped at a step rate.  The window ledge he had fallen from now sat at eye level.  That would teach him to leap without looking.  Senar gave him a lopsided grin as she attempted to brush mud off her skirts.  Those were also just as clearly ruined as his own jacket.  Mud also streaked down her face in single line from beside her nose.

Reaching out, he did his best to brush it away, but only succeeded in knocking off the large chunks.  A thin line still ran down her face.  She would need a bath to get rid of it.

She reached up and pulled away his hand.  “You don’t look much better.  A little mud won’t make much of a difference.”  A sudden crack, sounding almost as loud as thunder to Valar’s ears, sounded from within the temple.  “But I think a bullet or two might.  Shall we get going?”

Valar nodded.  Should the enemy army reach them, then he doubted that his daughter wouldn’t get the simple pleasure of a quick death from a bullet.  Not for some time at least.  She was a beautiful girl when she didn’t have mud covering her.  No, not a bullet for her.  That thought speed up his feet like nothing else could.

There wasn’t much space between the buildings, leaving Valar often bumping one shoulder or the other against the walls.  Behind him, some person or another had blocked off the enterance by the front of the church.  Noises still flowed over, but they were much diminished from what he’d experienced before now.  More than once, he had to turn sideways to brush past a barrel or stack of crates on the uneven ground.  Senar had no problems, but that had more to do with his bulk than her being too thin.  She wasn’t that, thank the Immortal Lords, but his muscles had long ago been covered in a layer of fat.  More than once, he wanted to kick something out of his way.

The temple ended, but a high wall still stood over their heads as the alley started moving back upward in fits and bounds.  Ahead, Valar could see masses of people moving toward his left, toward the road out of town.  No one headed toward him.  Maybe they all knew that this was a dead end with only the hick farmer from out of town getting stuck in it.  At least no one pointed and laughed, though a few people did glance absently down toward him before moving on.

When they reached the end of the alley, Senar grasped his hand before moving off into the crowd.  A few people jostled him as they entered the flow, earning him and his daughter a few dirty looks before they all focused back on getting out of town.

That in and of itself seemed like a forlorn hope to Valar.  Maybe the army hadn’t reached this street yet, but that wave was coming.  And if he’d needed any confirmation, that rhythmic pounding on the temple door had supplied it.  They were coming, and both of them needed to be somewhere else.

Gripping his daughter’s hand tighter, he pushed forward faster through the crowd.  At first, Senar had trouble keeping up, but Valar pushed harder, starting to shove people physically out of the way.  That cleared a path for the two of them.  Angry cries filled his ears from behind, but they were quickly muffled by a greater roar.

A glance behind showed Senar doing her best to keep up with him.  Years on the farm helped with that.  Behind them, several people had taken advantage of the path he’d created in the crowd—much like the plow broke the earth—and were increasing their pace in order to follow as closely to him as possible.  But behind all that, the wave broke.

Amid the debris from cannon fire and the cries of scared people, came the roar of the crowd Valar had seen from the bell tower.  Most carried nothing on their backs, the weight only serving to slow them down.  Those that refused to rid themselves of any extra trappings were slowly, but inevitably pushed back until they tripped and fell only to be trampled to death.  Their bodies caused others to slow down or risk falling and sharing the same fate.  But with each step, they seemed to approach faster.  As the road took a small climb, Valar could see what pushed that mass of bodies forward.

Cavalry.

Granted, they were far away, well down the road and away from where he know ran.  But horses were faster than men, and while they weren’t at full gallop, they seemed to be making good time.  Blue uniform jackets blended them into the night, and if it weren’t for the white slacks, then they’d just look like grey mists.  Grey mists that cut people down like sheeves of wheat at reaping.  No one stood a chance against that.  Not unless they were trained soldiers.  And even then, it took a lot for a line of men to hold against that kind of charge.  Down there was nothing more than a slaughter, pure and simple.

Suddenly, one body, then two and three, hit him in the side, and Valar went down, losing his grip on Senar.  More bodies slammed into him and it was all he could do to protect himself, let alone stand up.  He did, slower than he’d have liked and only because there’d been a sudden clearing of the crowd.  Looking up and rubbing a sore spot on his skull, he saw no sign of Senar.  Then he saw that had caused everyone to stop moving forward.

Another division of cavalry had crashed into the side of the escaping people.  Their swords went up and down in red arcs as people cried out in desperate fear.  Some had raised their hands and arms up in a vain attempt to stop steel.  They were chopped down where they stood, creating a wall of corpses.  More cries went up as more people fell.  And Valar stood in the center of it.

With a cry, he went down again as a boot heel took him in the back between his shoulder blades.  Horse hooves stomped around him, and he rolled away, doing his best to avoid danger.  Those instincts were old, and he’d thought, long forgotten.  Least that proved to be wrong.  Rolling to his knees, he grabbed a cobblestone someone had pried loose and threw it at the horseman bearing down at him.

The brick hit the cavalryman square in the head, sending him tumbling to the ground.  Scurrying on all fours, Valar found the brick again and attacked the dazed man, beating around his head with savage blows that barely registered on an emotional or intellectual level.  He only stopped when the body had stopped twitching.  Another cry, this one angry, sounded through his haze and only then did sense return.

Glancing toward another cavalryman, Valar felt around the body between his legs to find a pistol or some kind of weapon.  He found nothing beyond a saber, its loop wound around the dead man’s wrist.  Prying it free, he looked back at the soldier who’d cried out.  The mount wheeled and bucked, striking out with its hooves and teeth, laying men flat with seeming ease.  However, the cavalryman’s eyes never left Valar.

Pushing himself to his feet, Valar grasped the saber in both hands.  Battle lust glittered in the eyes of both man and horse, and the horse lunged forward at a gallop toward the—just what was he anyway?  A simple farmer?  No not anymore.  Not since these old reflexes had resurfaced.  Muscles had remembered old tricks.  It wasn’t an important question.  Just the one Valar’s mind turned to as he watched death come riding toward him.

Between infantry and cavalry, the mounted man held the advantage.  Mobility, agility, height.  These things all played to his advantage.  The trick was to remove it.

As the horse bore down on Valar, the other man raised his sword and started its swing downward, predicting Valar’s next move.  It was the same move that dozens, if not hundreds, of other men had made, costing each his life.  That wasn’t the way to win.  The horse’s eyes were wide and its mouth hung open, its breath coming in labored gasps.  Valar could see the bridle in that gaping maw.  Instead of turning, or dodging, or one of a dozen other choices that would only end with his skull split, Valar swung at that black maw.

The sword dug deep, nearly severing the jaw and stopping the horse dead.  It reared and fell on its side.  Valar was unable to keep ahold of the sword lodged into the bone as it was.  He’d half expected this and fell sideways, not trying to keep control of the saber.  Half a second after he hit the ground, the cavalryman landed beside him.  His skull hit a protruding stone and blood started to seep from a gash in his head.

Valar left nothing to chance.  Lying between them was another saber, broken in its fall.  Grasping it, Valar shoved it into the other man’s chest.  He could hear sucking noises as the other man tried to breathe through torn lungs and a pierced chest.  The cavalryman’s eyes went wide and he clawed vainly at Valar’s face.  Falling backward, Valar watched, amid the maelstrom of panic and death, as one man’s eyes went dark.  That was one feeling he didn’t miss.

Another saber swung through the air, clipping his left ear.  Valar rolled right, then scrambled on all fours toward the lee of a building.  Horse hooves followed him, but he never felt another strike come anywhere close.  His ear burned and blood ran down his neck.

Reaching the building, he collapsed against it.  He looked out at the death and distruction in the square that had once held so many.  Horses whined and soldiers lay still among the dead citizens of the city and the hamlets that surrounded it.  They were unarmed.  For every dead cavalryman, he saw ten, fifteen civilians.  This wasn’t a battle, this was a slaughter.  The horse that he himself had struck still flopped about on its side, the saber still in its jaw.  Its screams would be heard for miles.  Both other than it and himself, nothing moved.

Chest heaving, Valar just sat there.  Senar.  Oh by the Immortal Lords, Senar.  Where was she?  He couldn’t leave her to the rabble.  She needed him.  Needed him by her side.  Unless—No, he wouldn’t entertain that thought.  He would not.

Valar stood up on weak legs and started south once again.  The road was south.  That’s where she would go.  He’d find her at his sister’s.  They’d agreed on that.  As he walked, he couldn’t stop himself from looking at the face of each person as he passed.

2.

Jhim Neola couldn’t stop staring as Reliable dropped anchor.  Before him, the city of Baroth sprawled.  All the rumors had been correct.  It truly was one of the great cities.  Buildings climbed into the sky, the wooden slats covered in paints blues and browns and reds.  Even a few yellow buildings stuck out of the masses.  People swarmed over the streets like so many ants in the distance.  Other ships, most of them skiffs or sloops, dotted the harbor—enough so that Jhim briefly thought that he might be able to pass from one to another all the way to the shore and never touch water.  They’d passed two war galleys on their way into port.  That had been the grandest sight until now.

Streets and the buildings that lined them climbed the small hills that dotted the island.  But right in the center of it all, in a place of prominence—as it deserved—rested the Collusium, looking down on the rest of the world.  Silbar really was the greatest of the Immortal Lords.  Granted, the Collusium served as a school for all eight of the Lords, but Silbar was the best, the most benign.  Otherwise, why invite all priests to train and study within the Collusium when the other nations rarely, if ever, admitted to the other Lords beyond their own.  It all was just so magnificent.  Jhim took an unconscious deep breath.

That had been a mistake.

The stink of sewage and fish guts mixed with the distinctive odor of stale seawater, leaving him gasping for breath.  A cry from the taller section of the back of the ship—the stoop?—caused the sailors to leap about.  One proceeded to shove Jhim away from the rope he’d been using to hold his balance.  Jhim hit the floor with a grunt and he looked back up at the sailor.  He felt sure the hurt was plain on his face, but no one took any notice.  The sailor unwound the rope from the peg it’d been attached to and started letting coils of it slide through his fingers before tying it off again.  A lopsided grin appeared on his face as he stared down through greasy black hair at Jhim.  Reaching down with a sun-darkened hand, he grabbed Jhim by the arm and pulled him to his feet.

“Sorry, lad,” he said, straightening Jhim’s shirt.  “Needed on that yesterday, if you follow my drift.”  Then he proceeded to spout some jargon about boats that Jhim couldn’t follow.

Jhim nodded at all the right points.  Or at least, what he thought was all the right points.  There was no way for him to know, but the sailor seemed to take it for agreement.  At least, he wasn’t being called out right then and there.  That was the last thing he wanted.

Taking advantage of a break in the speech as the sailor drew in a breath, Jhim jumped into the fleeting silence.  “Quite alright, sir.  I do apologize for being in your way.  Pardon my intrusion and blessings be upon your day.”

The sailor scratched his head as Jhim walked away.  Hadn’t the man ever heard proper speech before?  If he had talked that way, his mother would’ve knocked him upside one side of the head and down the other until he stopped.  Come to think of it, most of this ship could’ve used the same treatment.  Ma and Fa hadn’t been the richest of folk, barely making it by on the farm they scrabbled a living off of, but they’d understood propriety and proper etiquette.

And passion.  That was why Jhim had made it this far.  Without them and their love, he’d have never had the courage to speak to the priest of his local temple.  The idea of journeying to study at the Collusium hadn’t even crossed his mind.  He just wanted to spread the word of Silbar’s glory.  But when the priest had suggested it, how could he have said no?  Ma and Fa had understood that, sacrificing even more for their son’s dream.  He owed them everything.  The least he could do was remember what they had taught him.

Taking a set of stairs down to the floor below, Jhim entered the space that had served as his living quarters on the five-day trip.  It was nothing more than a hammock strung between two posts.  Light filtered down through the floorboards above, illuminating dust and. . . other things he’d rather not dwell on.  The smell was something else he didn’t want to think on.  There was only so much space on the ship, and not near enough air circulation.  The stink of sweat, tar, and unwashed men permeated everything, including the hammock he had been assigned.  Whenever possible, he’d snuck up to sleep in the fresh air, staring at the stars as they floated by.  Or were the stars floating by as he stood still?  No one had every answered that question as far as Jhim knew.  Another thing for him to ask his teachers.  But all things were possible with the grace of the Immortal Lords.  Without them, it made no difference.

Grabbing the bag that held all of his worldly possessions, Jhim took the stairs two at a time as he reappeared into the noonday sun.  A rowboat had pushed away from the docks and was now making its way over.  Two sets of men worked the oars while another stood in the back, looking ahead with tight lips below a tricorne hat.  His yellow jacket showed plenty of lace at the sleeves and embroidery along the chest, but as it grew closer, he could see it was well worn.  It looked dim, the colors not as bright as they had once been nor the whites as bright.  Still, it had been a wealthy man who’d afforded that to begin with.  Jhim’s own purse held no more than a few coppers and one precious silver half-penny.  That was everything him and his parents had been able to muster.  But he’d find more and send it back to them.

The boat bumped alongside and a pair of sailors sent a rope ladder over the side.  A moment later, the official in the yellow coat popped his head up and climbed skillfully, if not nimbly, over the side.  Captain Syten Melic met him and the two started discussing something in whispers.  Curiousity overcame Jhim’s fears of the hard-eyed captain and he took a step toward the two men before a hand on his shoulder stopped him.

Jhim looked behind him and saw the face of a young man, skin sun darkened like the rest of the crew but with a shock of platinum blond hair.  He was only a few years older than Jhim’s eighteen summers, but lines already showed on a clean shaven face.  That was to be expected, Jhim assumed.  He’d seen what the man had done way up on the tops of those poles.  If he’d been spending most of his time two hundred feet above the floor, lines would surely cover his face from worry as well.

The sailor dropped his hand and gestured toward the captain and the official.  “I understand wanting to be ashore again, but best that you leave those two alone, lest you hear more than is healthy.”

Jhim turned back to the two men and saw a small purse exchange hands before heads and backs straightened.  How could hearing something be unhealthy?  That made no sense.  Ma and Fa had always said to listen as much as you could and learn from what you heard.  His priest had said the same.  What the sailor said flew in the face of that.  Clearly, the sailor was confused.  Moments later another two coins—Jhim saw the glint of silver and gold—openly changed hands and the official opened a ledger he’d carried up, jotting down a note or two before turning and heading back over the side.

“Boy,” the captain called.  His head went back and forth before his eyes landed on Jhim.  “You want to go ashore, there’s your ride.  Get going.  They’re not as patient as I.  Wait too long and they’re libel to ship off without you.”  He chuckled, causing his belly to job up and down in his too-tight green coat.

Looking back over his shoulder, Jhim could see that the sailor who’d stopped him had disappeared.  That saddened him a little.  He’d have at least liked to say goodbye to someone.  The captain would have to do.  Throwing his bag over his shoulder, he walked up to the man and stuck out a hand.

“Goodbye, sir,” he said.  “Thank you for the enjoyable trip.”  It’d rained most of the way here and today was the first day that wasn’t actively cloudy.

The captain guffawed and grasped Jhim’s hand in a meaty paw.  “Enjoyable, huh?  I’ll have to show you what an enjoyable trip actually is sometime.”  He released his iron grip and pointed to the side.  “Better get going.  What I said holds true, politeness or not.”

Jhim nodded and stepped up to the latter and looked over.  The boat seemed so far away and the latter rather rickety.  One of the men who’d worked the oars kept ahold of the ladder, preventing the boat from drifting away.  Two of the others looked out onto the harbor, contenct that they’d be paid regardless of if they were moving or sitting still.  The last picked at a lump on his nose.  Whatever it was, it was red and probably needed to be lanced.  As for the official, he had a pained expression on his face, and when seeing Jhim, peremptorily gestured for him to hurry up.

Sighing, Jhim climbed over the side and started down the ladder.  It was slow going, trying to keep from falling while balancing with the sack over his shoulder.  He’d made it only a few feet when a voice shouted up in a high pitched tenor for him to drop the sack.  Curiosity made him look down to see who was talking.  That was a bad idea and Jhim almost lost his balance before looking back up.  But he’d learned who spoke, so it all hadn’t been a loss.

“I said just drop the damn sack,” said the official.  “Edmon will catch it.  Or just let go and we’ll fish you out of the water.”

Jhim braced himself better and looked down again.  Edmon had been the one picking at his nose and he now looked up with a pained expression, gesturing for Jhim to drop the bag.  Trusting all of his possessions to a complete stranger wasn’t an easy thought.  His parents had taught him not to trust strangers.  But then again, everyone was a stranger until you  got to know them.  The strap of the bag slid down his arm to his hand, and with the best aim he could muster, Jhim dropped it toward the boat.

Edmon caught the bag without batting an eye, stowing it under the seat.  Then he looked back up and raised both hands, gesturing again.  That confused Jhim.  There wasn’t anything else for him to drop.  Everything he owned was in. . . . No.  There was no way that he was going to jump.  No way in the Seven Kingdoms.  True, he wasn’t a big man, but he was no boy.  The idea of jumping into someone else’s arms was more than a little insulting.

He started back down again.  The official was right.  It was faster without the bag.  A sense of confidence started to build and Jhim built up speed descending.  Then his foot caught on a rung and he lost his balance.  Hands slipped, then his free foot, followed by the foot which had caused it all to start.  Next thing he knew, he was in free fall.  Vaguely, he registered the official’s voice crying for them to push off.  Then there was nothing but the harbor.  His lungs caught nothing but water.  They spasmed and he reflexively tried to breath it.  Which only made the matter worse.

Two hands grabbed his shirt while two more grasped his ankles.  They hauled and Jhim coughed and gasped for breath in the bottom of the boat.  Water dripped from his hair into his eyes.  It took a moment or two for enough sense to return in order for him to stop thrashing about like some fool.  A snort or two helped clear his nose and a wet hand wiped drops of water from his eyes.  Nothing pleasant, but enough to clear away the water so he could see.  Looking up, he saw the four men bent to work on their oars.  The official held a lace handkerchief to his nose as if trying to disguise a smell by the perfume Jhim could smell despite the odor of fish on his clothing.

The boat bumped up against the dock and the official jumped out and started off down the docks before anyone else had time to react.  As the other three men put away the oars and tied the boat to a peg set in the posts of the dock, Edmon stood up and helped Jhim out of the boat with a rueful smile and a knowing wink.

“Happens to all of us,” Edmon said as he handed Jhim his bag.  “The trick is to stay dry next time.”

Jhim smiled thankfully and walked off after the official.  He really had no idea how to get to the Collusium, but he could see its towers in the distance above the buildings that lined the docks.  If nothing else, he could just keep climbing roads that led up.  It wasn’t the greatest of plans, but it was better than nothing.

Sailors and dock men busied themselves with a myrid of tasks as Jhim walked by.  Not many of them made sense to his untrained eye.  A man hauled a barrel here.  Another a box there.  More than once he saw a crate put down by one man only to be picked up and moved by a second and then a third.  It was confusing.  But it had to make sense to someone, if for no other reason that no one said an unkind word or threw a fist.

Perhaps an unkind word was incorrect.  More than once, Jhim heard one man insult another, or another’s parentage, or one of a million things.  Several times, he paused looking at a group of men, puzzling out what one or another had said.  When it clicked, he could feel his face turn a deep shade of red.  Such things were just not said—or even suggested.  To do so was incredibly inappropriate.  What parents would let their children speak so?

That wasn’t the only thing that shocked him.  The closer he got to land, the more that the colors of the buildings faded or flaked.  Most looked run down and in need of a new coat of paint which would restore some of their faded beauty.  Alas, no one seemed inclined to do so.  Signs hung over doors, depicting names and businesses in both words and pictures, several quite lewd.  More than one shop door hung open with rank smells of rotting meat or sweaty men rolling out into the street.  Inside, Jhim could see men hunkered around tables, stout clay mugs grasped in grubby hands among dimly lit tables.  Grime covered windows would do a better job letting in light had the barmaids been more interested in cleaning than—

Jhim’s face turned red when he realized why some of the women had skirts sewn up to revel petticoats or a well-turned ankle and bodices cut low.  And they seemed to relish in the attention it drew.  Both inside and outside of shops, Jhim saw hands slap away pinches and groping fingers with nary a thought.  It was like they expected it, and in doing so, was able to prevent it.  Such behavior would never have been tolerated at home.  He felt sure about that.  Sure, the barmaid at Ledwin’s Luck back home knew how to step lively, but she’d never had to fend off such an onslaught as this.  She’d have been overwhelmed in the first minute.  But then again, she’d never have had to.  Ledwin’s Luck didn’t open until a proper hour, well after the workday ended for most men.

All this took place while people danced around and ignored the rubbish lining the streets.  Crates and boxes, barrels and casks, filled any open area larger than three men abreast.  Fish filled some, rotting waste others.  It made the stomach churn to even look at it.  No one noticed the smell or the papers which filled the street, blown by the wind or caught wet in puddles on the stone street.  Seabirds filled the air, their rawkous cries unnoticed by any but him.  Occasionally, one or two would attempt to filtch some food from a stall or a cask.  Usually they were ushered off by angry proprietors, but enough succeeded to keep the hopes up for the rest.

Jhim just tried moving forward as fast as he could, keeping his head down.  Once or twice, he could have sworn he saw the brown robes of a priest inside a tavern with squirming woman on his lap.  But that would’ve been impossible.  Such activities were forbidden.  But he did stop one time, peering inside the darkened common room of a tavern just off the docks.  Indeed there had been a priest with a young woman half his age sitting on his lap with her tickling him under his chin.  Standing in the doorway, he gaped at the sight until another woman saw him and came sauntering over.  What she suggested had him red in the face, embarrassed that it even sounded entertaining.  He could still hear her and the other girls’ laughter as he fled down the street.

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