“How long will you stare out of this bloody window, old man?” Marcus Zakaria thought to himself, looking out onto the square of Tardon, clad only in his cotton undergarment, and feeling the chill of the night air surround his almost-naked body. Raising his eyes from the square to the sky, he watched Argon and Ajax at their highest nadir bathe the square of Tardon in a pale, cool light. Likewise, his room had taken on an eerie glow from the same light of the twin moons as it poured in though the mullioned window.
It had been another sleepless night. The dream – no, more a nightmare – had returned to haunt him ever since he’d encountered those bloody boys with wings. The little one had looked into his mind, he was sure of it now, and had kicked up a hornet’s nest of memories – memories that he’d worked hard, for years, to forget. Lowering his head into his right hand, he rubbed his forehead as if to knead away the headache that had awoken him. Turning from the window, he moved across the room and sat on the edge of his bed. The sheets were damp from his sweat and had a musty odor to them. How long had it been? Probably twenty years… no, more like thirty now.
He’d just been promoted to lieutenant commander of a large cohort. It had been his first serious command. Life in the palace had been soft, but unlike his brother, his father had assigned him to the career of a soldier. From an early age he trained with the palace guard – first in the lighthearted way of a young boy who dreams of glorious battles and heroic deeds, but later in his teenage years, the training became increasingly severe and much more serious.
While his older brother was a natural leader and diplomat, the young Marcus took to soldiering like a duck to water. He reveled in the training, enjoying the long forced marches, the strenuous activity, and the fierce sparring practice he was required to endure. A boy from such a noble background would most certainly become a general unless he demonstrated cowardice, or incompetence – of which traits Marcus Zakaria exhibited neither.
As a soldier, Marcus made both his father and his family proud. He was a brave and fierce fighter and a natural leader. Both a scholar and a soldier, Zakaria has spent hours studying as many accounts of ancient battles and tactics as he could find, and his private library quickly filled with books on military history and parchments describing first hand narrations of battles from both the victor’s and the vanquished points of view. The bold and decisive military tactics of Kartannus the Great, the so-called “Scourge from the Ponišessian Plains”, particularly intrigued him. Yet young Marcus’ life hadn’t only been blood and steel.
Now, sitting in his private apartments in the provisional office of Tardon, bathed in the light of the twin moons, his mind involuntarily returned to the first time he saw her. He’d just returned home from a border skirmish with the Vosh – a particularly wearisome group of people. They’d been at war with the Kingdom of Vorhalla for as long as he could remember, fighting for their independence. A foolish thing, Zakaria thought, since Vorhalla had never abused them and he knew the small tribe – while populated with great warriors – lacked the necessary resources to form a truly independent kingdom.
The Vosh had been giving Vorhalla its share of problems for years, but King Oslo’s troops had recently won a number of battles against them and they’d been forced to cross the border into Kalas. This led to all manner of troubles for the Kingdom of Kalas, since the Vosh – in an attempt to replenish their supplies of food and weapons – conducted countless surprise raids on the many borderland farms and towns of the kingdom.
The current treaty between the High Council of Kalas and the Kingdom of Xannameir obligated the King of Xannameir to defend Kalas, so Zakaria had been ordered to lead a substantial cohort into the borderlands. The campaign had been fierce, and while he’d managed to chase the insurrectionist Vosh back across the border into Vorhalla, the campaign hadn’t been without price.
A fourth of his cohort had been killed or seriously injured, and he himself had sustained a jagged, gaping wound across the right side of his face in a hand-to-hand foray with one of the Vosh commanders. And while the Vosh commander had given up his life at the point of young Lieutenant-Commander Zakaria’s sword, Marcus suspected he’d be carrying the scar on his face for the rest of his life.
Upon his return from the borderlands, he’d learned of his Uncle Leighan’s untimely death and since he’d missed the funeral ceremonies, his father had taken him to the family crypt to view the elaborately carved sarcophagus and offer a prayer for the late Seventeenth Duke of Lionsgate. In the crypt, his father turned to him and told him that since Leighan never married and had no heir it was his intention to invest Marcus with the lands and title his uncle had carried, and thusly, within days the young officer had become the Eighteenth Duke of the Duchy of Lionsgate. It had never been an ambition of Zakaria’s, who preferred the military life, but he understood that his noble birth demanded it. He also knew that his investiture was something that greatly pleased his father, so he accepted without protest.
The court of Xannameir was never one for lavish ceremony, so after the brief and simple investiture that culminated in him receiving his new title and position, Marcus joined his immediate family for a quiet dinner in the palace, and it was at that dinner that he’d first seen the woman who would forever capture his heart.
Normally the immediate family would have eaten in private without any outside guests or distant relatives in attendance, but when Marcus entered the room, he saw his younger sister Ida playing the harp while a young woman close to her age sang a languid ballad. The girl had a beautiful voice and an equally striking appearance. The flowing gown she wore accentuated her graceful figure, and her long raven hair framed a small yet strong face. She instantly captivated Marcus.
The dinner had indeed been a quiet affair, but the young woman kept staring at him and he at her through out the course of the meal. Her name, he discovered, was Morella and she’d become a close friend of his sister in the Academy of Tahkor, where the noble children of the Kingdom of Xannameir studied. Later, after the meal was finished and the family retired for the evening to the drawing room, he shyly asked if he might escort her on a walk through the palace garden. She readily accepted with a radiant smile that touched Marcus to his very heart.
That first walk turned into one of many during her stay with Ida at the palace. Morella had a quick wit, engaging smile and a bawdy sense of humor that seemed more in tune with the tales he’d often heard in the barracks rather than the salon. After that first evening together, he’d thrown caution to the wind and boldly asked if he could continue to see her. She agreed with a sunny smile and a merry laugh. Within a short period of time, the young Duke of Lionsgate was keeping regular company with her, and it didn’t take long for Marcus to fall completely in love with her.
Morella was a member of one of the lesser noble families of Xannameir, yet a marriage wasn’t out of the question, so with the blessing of his father he journeyed to her ancestral home, first to discuss a marriage contract with her father and then, with his permission, to ask Morella to marry him. Both Morella’s father and mother had been surprised, but greatly pleased at the young duke’s proposal and readily acquiesced to his request. But when he approached Morella, he was surprised by her reaction. Although she readily confessed her love to him and agreed to become his wife, she asked to have one year before entering into her nuptial vows with him. Having gotten to know her, he’d discovered her deep love of scholarship and knowledge – something he greatly admired.
He even learned – and surprisingly approved – of her unorthodox views of Sarjanism and the church that promulgated the dominant religion of the land. After he’d gotten to know her better, he found that she would often state her views on one of the doctrines of the church and then ask his opinion. Zakaria was a soldier, not a theologian, and he’d never really given much thought one way or the other regarding the church and the teachings of its founder, Sarjanus. Frankly, he didn’t see the point. As far as he was concerned Sarjanism was the official religion and for what little it impacted upon his life, he really hadn’t concerned himself regarding its teachings. Yet under Morella’s questions, he began to see the faith he had grown up with in an entirely different light.
The power and influence of the church was pervasive throughout the land. Years of political intrigue had seen to that. With its network of spies and assassins and its vast wealth, even nobles and kings weren’t immune to its control. The church was like an iron fist in a velvet glove. As long as everything went according to the wishes and whims of the Sacred Diet in Wheems all was well, but whenever things went counter to the wishes of the church, it never failed to intervene in order to produce an outcome that was satisfactory to the hierarchy. Morella bristled whenever she talked about all the plots and counter plots Wheems had hatched over the centuries, all with one purpose – to protect and strengthen its position and enlarge its sphere of influence.
Most pointedly, Morella fiercely opposed the church’s teachings and position on what it called the indenturement of heretics, and what most everyone else simply referred to as slavery. More than once when he was in public with her, he’d find her with tears in her eyes, especially when a group of children who’d been taken from their families and forced into slavery would pass by.
So when Marcus had asked her if she would marry him, she accepted only under the condition that he would give her one year – one year to see what she could do for the slaves. After that, she would marry him and continue her opposition to the church and its practices, but not as openly. As the Duchess of Lionsgate, she knew that there was only so much she would be allowed to do publicly – although her support and money would continue to go toward the cause.
During the year Zakaria granted her, Morella journeyed across the breadth of the kingdom, not only ministering to the slaves, but also speaking out against the practices of the church. Zakaria would often warn her that while her work was exemplary and kind hearted, it would be best to assist without speaking out. This always surprised Morella, since she could not merely do charitable works for the slaves, but felt a deep need to speak against the injustice she saw the church perpetrate.
The year had been a peaceful one as far as military conflict. The Vosh remained within the borders of Vorhalla and no danger – from outside or within – threatened the kingdom of Xannameir. Zakaria had been pleased, since he usually kept track of Morella’s comings and goings and often made sure some of his troops looked out for her – although discreetly. Morella resented what she thought of as Marcus’ overprotective ways, and bristled anytime he suggested direct protection for his fiancÚ and future wife.
He’d surreptitiously been able to effectively protect her as the months went by until one day, when a small struggle occurred in the town of Rhemsgate. The local baker’s guild had decided to raise the price of bread a few pennies. All of the bakers in the guild had agreed except two brothers who had tiny bakeries at opposite ends of the town. The guild tried to strong arm the brothers into compliance and the local populace – not wishing to see a rise in the cost of their bread – supported the two men. Something of a riot broke out in Rhemsgate and Zakaria was sent with his troops to end the fighting and straighten out the mess.
The “Bread Insurrection,” as it came to be called, was quelled in a matter of days, and Zakaria negotiated terms of peace between the baker’s guild, the two brothers, and the local townspeople. Pleased that all had gone well, he sent a message off to his father relaying what had happened and the outcome, and then took off for his private estate. On his journey back to the Duchy of Lionsgate, word reached him of a second disturbance, this one in the town of Arnsdale. The issue seemed to revolve around a rebellious group of slaves who’d locked themselves in the town hall and were demanding freedom. Upon learning the town’s name, Zakaria became alarmed since he knew it was one of the places Morella had planned on visiting.
Ordering his troops into a quick march toward Arnsdale, Zakaria began to sense a growing feeling of dread. As he and his forces got closer, he spotted a dark cloud climbing over the horizon in the direction of Arnsdale. Ordering his foot soldiers to get to the town as quickly as possible, he shouted for his mounted troops to follow him as he broke into a gallop, charging across the open fields towards the town.
As he neared Arnsdale, he realized that the billowing smoke was coming from a raging fire that had engulfed the town hall. Riding into the square he could hear the screams of the men, women and children who were now trapped in the raging inferno. The entire building was burning, flames shooting from the windows and licking through holes burned in the roof. Even more surprising was the fact that the entire population of the town was standing in the square, not making the slightest attempt to rescue those in the conflagration.
“What’s wrong with you?” Zakaria shouted as he dismounted in front of the mayor who was simply standing and watching the spreading fire. “How can you stand by and let innocent people burn to death?”
“We were ordered to watch, and forbidden to help,” the mayor said in a voice raw with emotion and pained exasperation. Shaking his head in disgust, he pointed to the front of the square.
Standing in a row were over thirty black robed monks, and behind them on horses sat blue-cloaked riders, all wearing the cross of The Knights of Sarjanus – a new order recently created by the Arch Abbot Gude.
“The lady Morella, was coming here – have you seen her?”
It was then the mayor lowered his head and began to shake.
“What, man?” Zakaria shouted. “Either you’ve seen her, or you haven’t!”
The mayor lifted his head and gazed mournfully into Zakaria’s eyes then and with his hand he pointed toward the burning building.
“She’s in there with them, My Lord,” he choked on the words. “The slaves took the building and the monks ordered all water and food held from them in order to force them out. The Lady Morella defied them, and with her servants and some sympathetic townspeople, she took food and water to them. As soon as they entered the building these…” He stopped and caught his breath. “These KNIGHTS,” he shouted, spitting out the words “came and threw torches into the building and then barricaded it so no one could get out. Then they said if anyone tried to put out the fire or save any of those inside, they would be put to the sword.”
By now, the man was shaking violently as tears streamed down his face.
Zakaria heard more screaming and looked up to see a young woman[JRS1] almost falling out of one of the upper windows. She was holding an infant and screaming hysterically.
“Please take my baby!” She kept screaming over and over. “Please catch him!”
Zakaria stood and watched the flames get closer and closer to her when suddenly the heat of the fire became too much and her clothes burst on fire. Flinging the baby from the open window in the hopes that someone would catch it, he watched as the fire quickly consumed her shrieking figure. The small, bundled body of the infant fell through the air, but Zakaria could see that no one other than the monks were near enough to catch it. He became filled with rage, then sick to his stomach, as he watched the small body hit the cobblestone street and bounce. Many in the crowd gasped, and some sobbed and wailed in helpless frustration.
Just then there was a loud crack! and Zakaria turned to see half of the roof of the town hall collapse inwards into the structure. There were screams from the crowd and sparks flew everywhere. Some were caught on the wind and rained down on those in the square. Looking to the entrance of the square, he saw his infantry troops double timing into the open area. Shouting at his cavalrymen, he ordered his foot soldiers into ranks and charged the line of knights and monks, scattering them like the cowards he knew they were. Within minutes he managed to clear them from in front of the town hall, just in time to see the structure implode with a loud crash as sparks, flames and balls of fire completely engulfed what was left of the building.
The next day, after the fire had burned itself out and the former town hall was only a pile of blacked stone, ash and bricks, he combed the ruins with his troops. After a whole day of searching, he never recovered enough of Morella’s body to take back to her family to bury. One of his soldiers found a ring – the one he’d given her when he first asked her to be his wife. It carried the crest of the Duke of Lionsgate, but the heat of the fire had all but obliterated the fine carving the jeweler had engraved into it when he fashioned the ring at Marcus’ behest.
The charred bones and unrecognizable remains they found were buried in a common grave just inside the Arnsdale gate, set with a stone listing the names of those who had died in the fire – the first name being that of the Lady Morella Buronne, Daughter of Lord Jesso Buronne and his wife Irika Buronne, betrothed to Marcus Andrus Zakaria, Eighteenth Duke of Lionsgate.
Marcus Zakaria stood from his bed and walked to the dressing table on the other side of the room. Reaching down, he picked up a misshapen piece of metal. It might have once been a ring, but its crushed and twisted shape would never again grace anyone’s finger. Long ago he’d placed it in a small box in one of the drawers of his desk in Palace Leon, ancestral manor of the Dukes of Lionsgate. Out of sight and buried under years of clutter, he thought he’d completely forgotten about it until that little angel had gone mucking about in his brain. After his encounter with the two winged boys, he’d retrieved it during an infrequent visit to the manor. Now holding it in his open palm, he looked down at it while turning it over and over in his hand. Its twisted shape reflected a golden glow in the moonlight. Then, as he’d done countless times before, his thumb rubbed where the crest should have been, only to feel the fused and cold metal, now smooth and nondescript under his touch.
After Morella he’d never met another women who would capture his heart and his love in such a way. Not that he hadn’t tried – with the encouragement of his family. His father in particular hoped Marcus would get over his grief and eventually find a wife who could provide him with both happiness and an heir, but it was not to be. Zakaria had been with other women both in the court of Xannameir and in his bed, but the standard he held them up against was far greater than any of them could measure up to and so his love and devotion were transferred to his career and the protection of his kingdom. The general continued to look down at the ring, lost in thought until he was roused by a knock on his bedchamber door.
“Enter,” he said.
A young officer opened the door, and light shown in from the other room, though it didn’t illuminate the room any more than the already bright light from the twin moons. Striding across the floor until he stood in front of the General, the young man thrust out a folded parchment. Zakaria tore open the seal, unfolded the parchment and began reading. After a moment of silence, he looked up at the officer.
“How accurate is this?” he demanded.
“It only just arrived, my lord general,” he said. “It came by rider from Konassas. Lieutenant Commander Tark sent it a few hours ago with one of his men. He ordered the man to ride to Kalas, get a fresh mount and ride to Tardon as fast as he could. He’s only been here ten minutes. The moment he arrived, I took the parchment and immediately brought it here to you.”
“Very well,” Zakaria said. “Tell the stable to ready my horse. “Tell Ronan Torken that I order him to assemble a quarter cohort. And tell him to have them ready within the next hour. He and the troops will accompany me with all haste to Konassas.”
“Yes, my lord general,” the young officer said saluting Zakaria, and then he turned and quickly left the room.
Returning the ring to the nightstand, Marcus Zakaria looked once more up at Argon and Ajax. “How fortunate for it to be full moons,” he thought to himself. “Their light will illuminate our journey.”