Chapter One: The Relics of Saint Malathric
Part Six: The Heavy Load
In which Master Siskington learns that religious fanatics are people too.
By the fifth day of the march I had become so used to being kicked awake that my master’s underlings had to drag me outside and dunk my head in the water barrel to wake me. Before this harrowing episode in my life I had never risen until I could be sure of getting a good lunch. Now as I trudged along with the column I glared with envy at the sun, which still hadn’t risen from its comfortable bed at the horizon. The bloody-minded cheer of those surrounding me only served to cement my sour mood.
The interruptor of sleep this morning – they changed so often that I suspected they were pulling lots for the privilege – was a striking young man with long auburn hair, his looks were definitely not of the Protectorate. By his flowing white robes I first took him for some sort of junior priest, but once I was roused he disappeared for a while and returned wearing a red tabard and carrying a spear under one arm and a brass helmet under the other. I was surprised to realise that he was a member of the Flameguard. So far in this march I had only associated with Clarence and his fellow Errants or others of the Exemplar order. These were rough and serious folk, but hospitable. The Flameguard were another story.
All those stories you hear, about the Protectorate burning their own people for heresy, or even on the rumour of heresy? While the Exemplars carry out unspeakable acts against non-believers, the Flameguard are responsible for policing their own. I had assumed that such men and women would refuse to interact with a lost soul like myself, let alone volunteer to wake one. In contrast, this young man was affable and polite. He introduced himself as Joseph, in a Sul-Menite accent, another surprise, and invited me to march along with him. Since I had little else to do apart from listen to Severius’ harangues against Morrowans or the Errants’ unsubtle bets on how long I would last once we fought the Morrowans or Kreoss’ lectures about the insidious tricks of the Morrowans, I took the offer.
As we trudged to the front of the column where the ranks of Flameguard were getting ready to set out, Joseph chatted about the day ahead. He was knowledgeable about the Bloodstone Marches, talking about cabals of bandits that had to be fought off and swamps, morasses and bogs that must be avoided. We joined the rest of the Flameguard and were met by friendly halloos and catcalls. “Handsome Joe is back, and he’s brought little Master Siskington!” a towering fellow at the head of the column guffawed. There was backslapping and offers of kafi, an odd drink from the Protectorate which tastes like spicy mud. I looked about me with a fixed smile, remembering the tales of suspected witches put down burning wells and whole families forced into the salt mines for the least infraction, while the implacable brass visages looked on. It didn’t fit with these happy voices and joking and japes.
After a while the camaraderie settled onto me and I stopped worrying. By hook or by crook, this was what my life was now, dogsbody to religious fanatics. In my career as a ne’erdowell I had encountered plenty of thugs who would knife you one minute and do errands for their dear old mum the next. Why couldn’t fanatic extremists who razed villages to the ground also be excellent company? No reason at all! So I joined in with their marching songs and drank their awful mud-tasting kafi and had a good time. Handsome Joe – which was what the other Flameguard called him – introduced me to the other members of his unit, who had colourful names like Goatface, Beth Babycakes and Ortho Witchsniffer. The unit had been part of the Northern Crusade for several months now, and they had all joined up at about the same time. This occurred to me as the reason for their cheer, perhaps these young men and women were having a blossoming of personality and happiness now that they had left the confines of the Protectorate and were seeing the wider world. Of course they talked with just as much vim about punishing the unrighteous as anything else, but it was a start!
The next day, when I was dunked awake by a surly chorister and left to my own devices, we approached the town of Tighrael, which was where the relics of Saint Malathric were supposed to be buried. Severius and Kreoss conferred for several minutes when the forward scouts reported the sighting, and it was decided that the Scrutator would set out with a small band to find out what was what, while the rest of the army set up a camp and awaited their return. He gathered up the Errants, his two warjacks and some flunkies – including my friend from that morning – and set off.
Hours passed, and there was no sign. The army grew restless and the various seneschals and officers kept coming to consult with Gavram Kreoss, who paced back and forth and rebuffed their plans for mounting another mission to go and find out what had happened. After the fourth or fifth attempt he grew so angry that he shook the petitioner by the shoulders and bellowed at him, “I will not be questioned again, we wait until dark!”
As if his words, echoing through the hills, had awakened some fearful monster from a bygone age, one of the tents nearby exploded in a shower of fire and earth, flinging those gathered around it in all directions. We all took cover, and after a few moments another explosion hit near the same point. Field glasses were rounded up and they found that the Cygnarans had spotted our camp. They were using portable artillery on us, which was of course further proof of their heretical cowardice. The High Exemplar finally gave in to his junior officers and rounded up a force of Exemplars to go and take care of them.
Nobody was more surprised than I when he pointed at me from his horse and shouted, “I leave Master Siskington in charge. Get this camp moving, I want it two miles to the northeast!” As he rode off with his warband I felt a hundred pairs of eyes on me. I was sure that the owners of two hundred of those eyes (including my mule) felt they were more qualified to run things than I was, but strangely I have always found that having responsibility dumped on you from on high is the quickest way to accept it. “What are you all standing looking at me for? Get those wagons moving!” I spotted Handsome Joe and his cohorts watching events unfold with amusement, and motioned them over. “Those tents over there? Make sure they empty them, but leave the tents standing. We don’t want the Cygnarans wondering where we’ve gone.” Joe smiled at me as he crammed his helmet over his curly mane of hair, “There’s the reason you were left in charge, your sneaky heretical mind. No true believer could think of something so base!” Since they went to do my bidding, I decided to take that as a compliment.
So the camp was moved and the waiting game started all over again. Nobody bothered coming to ask me about any rescue mission, I’m sure if they were worried enough they would take off without asking. But the hours passed, and there were anxious looks back to the south, and as darkness fell scuffles began to break out as soldiers held their impatient friends back from marching off into the night after their comrades. Finally, as the stars began to appear overhead, there was a call from the darkness. “His Word is Law!”
I joined in the response “And His Will our Command!”, and was among the first to get to the camp’s perimeter, where a battered and bloody group of Errants had returned. The reason they had taken so long was obvious, behind them two warjacks walked extremely slowly, with the dejected looks of dogs whose masters have gone away. They were working on very low steam and the dull gleam in their eyes suggested they were not being controlled by any human mind. The choristers who had returned conferred with those who had remained, and the fresh choir struck up a rousing chant to chivvy the warjacks along. I might have suggested giving them more coal or water, but it does not pay to interfere with religious beliefs when they apply to machinery.
Instead I turned to Clarence, the leader of those Errants who had left that morning. The Menites had met the Morrowans in the field, and had been set to smash them utterly when the Grand Scrutator had suddenly vanish. No doubt as a result of Morrowan witchcraft, but whether witchcraft or not the warjacks had been confused and directionless, and it was only by the skin of their teeth that so they had escaped the Cygnaran retaliation. Their attempt to withdraw had gone right into the Cygnaran barrage, and they had been scattered and wandering all day. “Poor sport, old sport. And who left a blighter like you in charge anyway? Don’t told me old Kreoss has bitten it too,” Clarence grumbled and then motioned his phalanx into the camp, calling for kafi.
He left me staring out into the darkness, wondering what the next move was. I doubted my status as head of the remainder of the army would last long, but I had the feeling that my lord and master Scrutator Semper would have other agents in the camp whose job it was to keep an eye on me. Perhaps Handsome Joe and his friends were doing exactly that. So I had to be seen to be helpful, and not dither or hesitate. Now…whether to send out a search party for the Grand Scrutator now or in the morning? As I ran through a few possibilities in my head, it was a few moments before I realised that I had included myself in this potential search party. What was happening to me??
I have never been so thankful to hear a voice as in the moment when the harsh and unpleasant tones of Grand Scrutator Alphonse Severius rang through the night air. “His Word is Law!” the man croaked, following the same trail the Errants and warjacks had. I gave the countersign, and rushed down to him. His robes were tattered and muddy, and he had taken off his mask but replaced it when I came near. I got a surprising glimpse of a face not at all ravaged by scars and pockmarks as I had imagined before he turned the haughty glare on me. “Ah, Siskington,” he said in the tones you might address an earthworm, “I have returned, so you may inform the High Exemplar there is no need to send out a search party.” I tried to explain the change in circumstances, but he waved his arm, “No time for your excuses, Siskington, I must rally our forces and plan a new attack. The place is swarming with heretics, and I have made an important discovery. Just as we were about to smash them down in Tighrael, the Lawgiver gave me a sign. He took the ground out from under me and I fell into a submerged city, the fabled lost city of Malathricthier, twin to noble Icthier and ancient shrine to the venerated Saint Malathric, intolerator of sloth! It has been shown to us now, so we know this place will be ours. The Morrowan filth know not what they have, so we must devise a plan to drive them off!”
And with that he swept off, his posture practically regal despite the feculence that coated him head to toe. The mantle of leadership having been snatched from my shoulders as quickly as it was placed there, I scurried after him, careful to display my callow obedience to any and all agents of Scrutator Semper who might be watching. And since I was one of them, I suppose I was trying to convince myself into the bargain.
Check back on Friday for the battle report for Game Three of the campaign. The Scrutator Semper Chronicles is out every Monday and Friday!