A light wind stirred the damp night air to create a misty breeze – just cold enough to chill Galen Sharp as he walked across the courtyard; unthinkingly, he pulled his cloak tightly around his tall and gangly body. As the foggy night air swirled about him, touching his bare, angular face with its cold icy fingers, Galen looked up into the sky. The twin moons Argon and Ajax were bright in the heavens – having waxed to fullness over the past few days – their luminescent glow adding a soft pale light to the night and illuminating his trek across the cobblestone paving of the courtyard.
Not that Galen would have had any difficulty making his way to the chapter house in the abbey fortress of Eagle’s Eyre even if the night had been pitch black, for this was a trip he’d made countless times since his first journey there, over twenty years ago.
He had been a young servant boy in the monastery of Moorgate when initially Arch Abbot Gude summoned him. Now years later, as the Supreme Knight Commander of the Holy Knights of Sarjanus, he sat in a singular position of power and authority. Yet for the all the influence and privilege his office granted him, Galen continued to live the same austere life he’d assumed during his time of service to the monks in the monastery of Moorgate. His duty was to the church, and unlike others who’d used their office or position to enrich themselves or indulge in the luxuries of the world and the flesh, Galen’s greatest satisfaction was in serving the church he loved so much.
Crossing the courtyard at a brisk no-nonsense pace, Galen paused before the steps of the cathedral, wondering if he had a few minutes for a brief prayer, then quickly deciding he didn’t, he climbed the steps and entered through the large portal the massive doors created when they were open. Tonight a walk through the dark and silent church on his way to the chapter house would have to suffice. At least he could offer a brief prayer as he passed through the sacred structure.
Moving quickly through the darkened narthex, Galen stopped for a few seconds at one of the arched openings leading into the main structure of the sacred building. For the most part, the church was dark – illuminated only by a few candles set in strategic places. Even in the light of the full moons, the stained glass windows were dark and dull. Staring into the dim and silent church, he looked up to see the large stone columns supporting the vaulting arches of the roof obscured by murky darkness.
Standing quietly for only a moment, he offered a silent prayer as he stared up the long center aisle – his gaze coming to rest on the beautiful main alter, dimly lit by fluttering candles. The moment passed quickly and Galen stepped through the archway into the holy and quiet space.
Once inside the main body of the great church, Galen took a deep breath as his eyes cast about, taking in the magnificent beauty of the holy and ancient structure. The cathedral as always offered him a refuge of peace and solitude – a feeling that had originally brought a young Galen Sharp to the church as a boy, fleeing the bullies and street gangs of Moorgate.
Now in addition to the feeling of peace and calm the grandeur of the church offered, Galen also felt a sense of pride and satisfaction. He’d worked diligently for the past twenty years to bring Arch Abbot Gude’s vision to reality – a holy and sacred mission that he felt blessed to have been given. In the years since he’d first been brought to the great abbey, it was a duty he’d striven to faithfully and steadfastly perform every day of his life, to the best of his considerable abilities.
In his very first meeting with Abbot Gude, Galen listened intently to the great spiritual leader as Gude laid out his vision. The abbot had been meticulous in his plans. He told Galen that it was his intention to create a new order – one that would be solidly rooted in the teachings of the church, yet at the same time perform its daily activities around a quasi-military model. The abbot referred to this new order as The Holy and Blessed Knights of Sarjanus.
It was the abbot’s intention to use this newly created group to ferret out heresy, and offer assistance to the general populace in helping them adhere to the teachings of the blessed prophet. Gude’s plan had been rather simple and direct: create an order – paramilitary in its structure – that would have just enough power and authority to keep the church doctrinally pure, properly sacred, and unwaveringly orthodox. And while the Abbot laid out his plan and strategy talking of zeal, faith, and orthodoxy, Galen was astute enough to see that the main weapon this new order would wield was fear. By openly searching out and exposing heresy, apostasy, sin, and infidelity, then effectively punishing it in very open, direct, and public ways, the church could foster just enough fear to keep the majority of the population in line with its teachings.
Even as the abbot talked, Galen’s mind returned to some of the incidents he’d seen in Moorgate, along with the bullying he personally had to endure as a child. The knights would never have the forces or resources to blanket all of the kingdoms, but with the right inducement the people could be brought in line. Fear would most definitely be the factor. Fear of death or injury would keep some in line. Fear of loss of property, position, or power would keep others obedient. Fear of death to family, and friends – aimed at those who didn’t care for their own personal safety or well-being – would also be an important part of the plan.
It was a task Galen not only embraced, but also was more than willing to carry out. He knew that fear was a powerful tool, often more powerful than the strongest army. He’d learned its effective role first hand, when as a young boy he’d observed the street gangs of Moorgate make an example of some hapless soul they had a vendetta against in order to prove a point. Usually it only took one instance of such a public display to strike terror into the hearts of others, creating obedience and cooperation.
Years later, he remembered that a single shocking incident – made as public as possible – could race the length and breath of the kingdoms within weeks, and as it traveled from mouth to ear, its impact would only gain more strength in the telling. Public displays of punishment or torture went a long way in keeping people obedient, and he could see no reason why the church couldn’t use the same tactics.
Combined with the oratory of its preachers, the knights were able to assist the church in enforcing its laws and decrees without great force or expenditure of funds. Of course, from the beginning of the venture Galen had been given access to the vast resources of the church’s wealth to use as he saw fit, but within a few years of The Order Militant’s creation, it was discovered that large sums of money weren’t really needed.
Once the order had been created, housed, fed, trained, equipped with the necessary uniforms, and its headquarters, regional offices, and barracks had been established, the system virtually ran itself – partly due to the efforts and diligence of Galen Sharp, who faithfully carried out the abbot’s wishes with a single-minded passion, and a sharp eye to economy.
Of course like all new things, it took some time for the knights to build their reputation, but within a surprisingly short period of time they became feared. And while the citizens of the kingdoms may have hated them or muttered against them when they were out of earshot, no one dared cross a knight openly or publicly.
Initially they’d run into some opposition, but that quickly changed. The turning point had been in Tremona, a large northern town in the Kingdom of Aradamia. The summer had been unusually rainy and damp, which lead to great shortfalls in crop yields throughout the surrounding countryside. When it came time to pay the harvest tax to the church, some of the local farmers held back a portion, claiming that they wouldn’t have enough to trade with or feed their families. Surprisingly, the mayor and city council agreed and only half of the town’s levied grain assessment was paid to the church. Local church officials complained to the Sacred Diet in Wheems, and Abbot Gude sent Galen and the newly formed knights to Tremona as a test of their mettle.
Gude wasn’t sure what the new Knight Commander would or could do, but he needn’t have worried. Galen quickly formulated a plan on the long ride to Tremona. When he arrived, he led the knights into the city. At first they were met with curiosity, but as soon as it became apparent that they’d come to enforce the will of Wheems, the town’s people began to gather in the square and very quickly the talk of rebellion was thick in the air. Before entering the town, Galen had ordered some of his knights to seek out the houses of the mayor and the members of the town council. He carefully instructed the knights on what to do and then led the rest of his troops into the square.
By the time Galen and the remainder of his knights were in the square, the crowd was on the verge of turning into an angry mob. Galen made his way to the town hall, dismounted, and climbed the stairs to the ancient building. He turned and addressed those in the square, explaining who he and his knights were and why they’d come. Someone threw a rock; it barely missed the tall lanky Knight Commander, but seconds after he dodged it there was a loud commotion at the far end of the square, and the angry shouts of the crowd died down as the mayor, the town council and their families were led through the square.
The mayor had not only been bound, but also brutally beaten – a gaping wound could be seen on the side of his head and dried blood caked the right side of his face. His eyes were puffy slits and he walked with a marked limp. The rope encircling his neck was tied to the horn of one of the knights’ saddle. As the hapless man staggered into the square, he tripped and fell. The knight who held the rope spurred his horse on and the unfortunate mayor was dragged through the square by his neck all the way to the town hall building as his wife screamed in shock and fear. By the time the knight arrived at the steps of the town hall, stopping directly in front of Galen, the man was dead – his neck broken.
The rest of the mayor’s family along with the city council and their families were taken into the town hall. The crowd – now more subdued – continued to wait in the square. After an hour had gone by, they all emerged from the town hall. At the first sight of them the crowd gasped. All of the men who served on the town council had been severely beaten; with bloody faces, eyes the size of small slits and teeth missing, they were almost unrecognizable. A few appeared to have broken arms and more than one walked with a limp or could be seen clutching their stomach, indicating they most likely had taken a number of heartily administered body blows. Likewise, some of the older boys had also been beaten. Most of the women were crying, clutching babies and hanging on to their smaller children, who also wailed as they clutched at their mothers’ skirts. With Galen leading the way, the knights encircled those they’d taken prisoner and led them out of town. Just as Galen had hoped, the townspeople followed behind them.
Four days prior to entering Tremona, Galen had come across a small farm a few miles from the outskirts of the town. Commandeering the farmhouse as headquarters, he ordered his knights to construct a gallows in the barnyard of the farm. As the gallows was being built by some of the knights, others were ordered into the forest where they cut down a number of tall evergreen trees. Removing their branches and stripping them of their bark, they fashioned large poles from the felled trees. Galen then had his men dig a series of holes every few feet around the gallows to form a circle. Once the holes were finished, the tall poles were anchored in the ground, forming a ring of tall stakes around the completed gallows. Large piles of dry wood, twigs and brush were piled high around the stakes, forming tall mounds. The gallows had been fitted with eight ropes, all ending in nooses.
When the owner of the farm protested Galen’s seizure of his property and threatened to ride into town to report his actions to the mayor and town council, the Knight Commander ordered him and his family killed. He needed the element of surprise to make his plan effective, and he didn’t want a rebellious farmer undermining his ultimate goal.
Upon arriving at the abandoned farm with its grisly instruments of death on display for all to see, Galen got off his horse and casually walked to the gallows. As he climbed the steps, the men of the town council, their families and the family of the dead mayor were made to stand before the gallows within the circle of stakes. Galen once again read the edict he’d been given to deliver from Wheems. Then looking down upon the criminals, he delivered an impromptu address – that had been carefully written and rehearsed over the four days he’d sat in the farmhouse, awaiting the gallows to be readied.
In his speech, Galen extolled the virtues of the church and its importance to not only him, but also the people of all the kingdoms. He warned against apostasy and heresy and where it could lead. He also warned against disobedience. Then pausing for a few seconds, he looked out toward the towns people crowded beyond the ring of stakes and passed judgment on the beaten, bloodied and terrorized council and their families. Without emotion of any sort, Galen told the people of the town that they were about to witness what willful disobedience to the church would lead to. Then without any sort of dramatic flair or skillful oratory Galen Sharp, in the name of the Sacred Diet of Wheems, simply gave the order for their executions.
As the women screamed and cried, the beaten and bloodied councilmen were lead to the steps of the gallows. Galen descended the gruesome gibbet, strode past the begging and pleading townspeople, and once more mounted his horse where he sat without expression as the sentence was carried out. The councilmen were pushed roughly up the gallows steps and herded to where the nooses limply hung. They had been so badly beaten that some were having trouble standing and had to be supported by some of the knights, who glared at them as if they were vermin.
One by one the women were bound to the stakes. They screamed and fought, trying desperately to cling to their babies and small children. The children, ranging from infants to older teenagers, were placed in front of the gallows in the center of the circle. The seven bloody and beaten members of the council, now standing before the ropes of the gallows and overlooking the scene unfolding at their feet, had the nooses looped over their heads. One noose remained empty, blowing in the wind – it had been intended for the mayor, but now hung swinging in the breeze as silent testament to his earlier death. Once all the nooses encircled the necks of every councilman, they and their women were forced to watch as one by one the children were slaughtered.
Next the piles of brush and wood were ignited around the stakes. The women’s screaming – shrill and mournful from grief over seeing their children murdered – now turned to screams of excruciating pain as the fire began to consume them. Once the last of the women stopped screaming, Galen gave a slight nod of his head and the bottom dropped out of the gallows as all seven men dropped through the open trap door in the floor.
Once the last of the councilmen’s feet stopped kicking and Galen was sure they were all dead, he gave his knights the order to mount. As quickly as The Blessed and Holy Knights of Sarjanus had entered Tremona, they left as the bodies of its town council hung dangling at the end of their ropes and the stakes piled high with wood continued to burn, sending their black and acrid smoke spewing into the sky. That incident was never repeated again. Galen knew it wouldn’t be necessary. He’d gotten the desired effect, and within less than one week, word of what happened at Tremona had traveled from one end of the land to the other.
What Galen found to be the most interesting – even amusing – part of the whole incident was that after the death of the mayor, when he’d taken the council and their families into the town hall, their fear was so great they’d agreed to pay the tax. But Galen summarily refused to accept their offer, knowing that the effect would not be as chilling as what he’d planned and intended. His first mission had been a success. After Tremona and the famous slave rebellion in Arnsdale, he rarely had to resort to such a large, public display of brute force. The knights still occasionally preformed some overt act to promote obedience, but on the whole they were rarely needed.
After a few years passed and the people got used to the knights and their activities, a hanging here, a scourging there, or the public seizure of someone’s possessions and children as they were forced to stand before their burning house and watch it collapse into charred rubble was more than enough to keep the general populace in line. Initially, there’d been some resistance – especially among the nobility and the bourgeoisie, who’d grown quickly in wealth and power over a one hundred year period of peace and prosperity. But initial opposition quickly faded and the years of burning heretics at the stake or having them publicly drawn and quartered were long in the past. Yes, the property of sinners was still seized and their children pressed into slavery, but that usually was something that happened mostly to the poorer classes, and not many people spoke out against it.
The Knights had made their mark on the land and its people – Galen had seen to that – and the days of open heresy against the church were past. In every town – even the oft forgotten backwater ones – had at least a small garrison of Knights. The knights formed a quasi-army, an effective network of spies, and sometimes even performed constabulary functions in smaller, more remote areas of the various kingdoms. True, their strength was greatest in the kingdom of Vorhalla – most specifically Wrenstatten, the city closest to the site of the Sacred Diet in Wheems, but The Knights of Sarjanus’ power and influence were pervasive enough to instill fear throughout all of the kingdoms. It rankled him more than a little that Xannameir remained somewhat intransigent after so many years, and Aradamia – the very site of the prophet’s sacred shrine – often openly flaunted their disrespect by their worldly and materialistic lifestyle. But nevertheless, The Knights were strong, and their hierarchical command structure strict and orderly – much like the man who created it. And sitting at its head was Galen Sharp, answering directly to Arch Abbot Gude.
Striding silently up one of the side aisles of the cathedral, Galen’s dark blue cloak blended in with the shadows to make him almost invisible. Midway up the aisle, he stopped at a large pair of double doors and passed through them. They opened into a long corridor with a similar set of doors at its other end. Making his way down the torch-lit hallway, he approached the second set of doors, and continued on his way. Once through the doors, he found himself in the great library. Its magnificent mosaics, frescos and artwork never failed to amaze him. To his right, past the large atrium, the long stacks of books seemed to stretch on forever, vanishing into the darkened recesses of the library. Above his head, six more floors connected by two great spiraling staircases contained thousands of ancient treasures reaching back through centuries of history.
Looking down at the intricate mosaics in the tiled floor, he could see shapes and patterns – some familiar, others strange and mysterious. The center medallion of the snake, the dragon and the eagle each grasping each other’s tail in an endless circle always intrigued him. Yet the significance of it’s symbolism had long been lost and he’d never found anyone who could give him a plausible explanation of its meaning; likewise, the strange swirling patterns that encircled the figures – while beautiful and decorative – often gave him the impression that he was viewing the characters of some ancient language. But again, no adequate explanation had ever been given regarding them.
Walking across the atrium, he paused once he reached its center. Rising from the floor was a large wooden scaffold that reached all the way up to the ceiling and the great leaded glass dome. A large part of the dome had been shattered and was being repaired. Since it was late at night, all work had ceased for the day. Galen moved directly under the scaffold and looked up. As his eyes took in the sight of the great dome, he realized that he could see the night sky now, clearly visible through the large hole in the dome. Above his head, the twin moons glowed in their fullness. He also noted that although the dome was being repaired, it wasn’t being restored to its original condition. Instead of new pieces of colored glass being placed in their proper pattern, milky white pieces were being carefully laid between new strips of leading in what looked like a quickly executed repair – done primarily to keep out the rain and elements rather than restore the beauty of the dome.
He frowned at the sight of the stark white milky glass interspersed with the richly colorful patterns of the original material. It was unlike the Arch Abbot to order such a quick and hasty repair without regard to proper reconstruction and restoration, but he could sense from his last series of communiqués from Abbot Gude that new and unexpected forces were gathering and causing change – possibly serious change – to tear at the fabric of orthodoxy he and his mentor had worked so hard to maintain; something as minor as restoration of the dome might be the least of the Arch Abbot’s concerns. Perhaps later, after the inevitable triumph of the church, more could be done. After about a minute of craning his neck and examining the repair work, Galen stepped away from the scaffold, shook himself out of his pensive mood, and continued on.
Passing out of the library, he entered another long corridor; at its end stood a black robed figure. Since this was a trip he’d made many times, he wasn’t surprised to see the current Prefect of Novices awaiting him.
“What took you so long?” the prefect said, “He’s been waiting for you.”
“My horse threw a shoe,” Galen answered in an annoyed tone of voice. “I had to leave it and walk for about two miles. Would you see that it’s retrieved?”
“Yes, certainly,” the prefect answered, then turned and led the way as Galen followed.
Moving deep into the recesses of the chapter house and after climbing a flight of stairs, Galen finally arrived before the door of the abbot’s private office. The perfect opened and held the door for Galen, who passed through. The prefect – remaining in the outer vestibule of the office – shut the door, and Galen stood alone in the presence of Arch Abbot Gude. The abbot was sitting at his desk, a number of papers and parchments surrounded him and he was studying one rather intently.
“I’m late,” Galen began, “my horse…”
“You needn’t explain,” Gude said, looking up and abruptly cutting him off. “You’re here now, and we have much to discuss. Come here and look at this.”
Galen strode across the room and stood before the large table that served as Gude’s desk. Gude surprised Galen by motioning for him to come to the other side so that he could look over the abbot’s shoulder and examine the papers with him. Normally, Galen always stood in front of the abbot’s desk, giving him the respect he felt the arch-abbot of the Eagles Eyre deserved. But tonight, Gude seemed more agitated than usual, and Galen could see not only anger, but also something else – Fear? Worry? – in the eyes of his mentor.
“Examine these,” Gude said in his usual curt and abrupt tone. “They were drawn by Brother Jules; he’s our best illustrator. We’re fortunate that he was a witness to some of the events of the past few weeks.”
Galen reached out and took one of the parchments; as he examined it, his eyes grew wide with surprise. The carefully drawn picture was obviously the work of a skilled illustrator, meticulously executed and quite beautiful. But it wasn’t the quality of the illustration that prompted Galen’s surprise, but the subject. Depicted on the parchment was a young boy – a boy with wings.
The boy looked to be between fifteen and seventeen years old. Dressed in a short blue tunic with sandals on his feet, if Galen’s instincts were correct, his pose and stance gave him an aristocratic appearance. His blond hair shimmered and his blue eyes flashed… what?…anger?… determination? Around his neck lay a golden chain and some type of medallion. But most surprising were the two very large bluish, iridescent wings that emerged from his back.
Before he could completely examine the parchment, Gude thrust another into his hands. This one, obviously drawn by the same skilled illustrator, showed another boy – possibly eighteen to twenty years of age. One look at his face and Galen shivered. Like the first picture, this boy also had wings, not as large as those of the first boy, but still beautiful with golden flecks speckled throughout the feathers. The boy was holding a sword and a dagger, and the look on his face was strong and serious – this one was a warrior – there was no doubt in Galen’s mind, and he didn’t think a fight with this creature would be an easy one.
Once more Gude, impatient and agitated, thrust a third parchment into his hands. The beautiful black and red-flecked wings of the boy in the illustration were his most striking feature. Thin and delicate, this boy wore a red-jeweled ankle brace similar to the warrior’s green one. He appeared slightly older than the sparkling winged boy, but younger than the gold winged angel. His face was serious and solemn, almost like a priest – no, maybe more that of a scholar. For a few minutes Galen continued to study all three parchments, shifting them back and forth in his hands. Finally he looked up, handed them to Abbot Gude and looked into the old man’s eyes.
“What would you have me do, my lord Abbot?” Galen asked, looking down at the withered old man with quiet reverence.
“I want this one – alive.” Gude said pointing to the picture of the youngest boy. “I already have some information – Zakaria thought he could keep it from me. The fool thinks Xannameir is somehow exempted from the decrees of the Holy Office, but in time I’ll show him that the even though the Diet resides in Wheems, it can still reach out and put its fingers around his throat.”
“And this one?” Galen said pointing to the red and black winged boy.
“He could be valuable. Try to bring him to me alive, but if that isn’t possible, his body will do.”
“And the other?” Galen said, looking at the golden winged warrior.
“Kill him! Use whatever means you must, but kill him,” Gude shouted, pounding his fist on the desk.
An open bottle of ink jumped and overturned, spilling its contents across the desk. Galen quickly grabbed two of the pictures, but the third – the one with the sword wielding boy – he couldn’t retrieve quickly enough and he watched as a stream of black ink rolled across it, blotting out the boy’s face. Flustered, Galen tried to clean up the ink, some of which had by now made its way to the edge of the desk and was dripping on the intricately woven carpet.
“Leave it,” Gude commanded. “Now sit. I have much to tell you about the events of the past months. The church faces its most deadly foe. Galen, you are about to receive your most serious assignment, and meet your greatest challenge.”
The abbot kept him for an additional hour, relating to him things he could barely comprehend. When their meeting was concluded, Gude abruptly dismissed him with the command to execute his mission.
Just as he was about to pass through the door Gude’s thin reedy voice beckoned him back. Galen turned to face the abbot.
“In addition to what I’ve told you I want to make something very clear, Galen,” the old man said. “I not only want to end this problem as quickly and efficiently as possible, I also want to make sure the people are not drawn into this.”
Galen stood unmoving, knowing there was more to come.
“If anyone is found assisting or aiding these creatures, I want an example made of them, and I don’t care if they are commoner, merchant, nobleman or the King of Xannameir himself. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly,” Galen answered, giving the abbot a long and steady gaze. Then realizing the meeting had concluded, he bowed, turned on his heels as his cloak whipped around him, and walked out through the doorway.
Passing once more into the vestibule, he was met by the Prefect of Novices, who apparently had been waiting for him.
“Will you be staying with us, my Lord Commander?” the prefect asked.
“No, I will not. Ready me a horse; I ride for Gabon within the hour, if the stable can be quick in furnishing me a fresh mount.”
“Of course, my Lord Commander,” the prefect said, bowing slightly.
Galen made his way out the same way he’d entered, except instead of exiting via the cathedral he walked directly out of the chapter house and strode across the courtyard to the stables. As he waited for the stable boys to prepare a horse for him, he glanced across the moonlit courtyard and stared at the great cathedral.
As the entirety of what the abbot had said filled his head, his eyes moved skyward and he looked into the dark and starry sky. Overhead Aragon and Ajax continued falling through the night sky; Galen looked at them for a long time, lost in thought. A gust of cold wind blew across the courtyard. Galen gripped his cloak and gathered it around him before he walked into the stable to check on the disposition of his horse.