The Heron Kings

The Heron Kings

 

Chapter One: An Absurd World


“It has become fashionable, in the study of the histories of the Heron Kings, to fixate on this one figure or that and mythologize them as being the critical character, the defining embodiment of the whole. One hero, one villain, one great story! This is human nature, but of course it is folly. No one person—not Alessia, not Corren, and certainly not Ulnoth—could ever have accomplished what they did alone. It was only together, as one extraordinary group of ordinary people, that they changed the course of history. This is an uncomfortable truth that our vestigial nobility would have the Commons forget. All the more vital, then, that they do not forget.”

—From a censored excerpt of Professor Emeritus Rigobert’s retirement speech, University of Murento

 

A fresh spurt of blood spattered into Alessia’s face, painting a smear across her cheek. She didn’t flinch this time, barely noticed it with all her attention focused on the task at hand—the sharp instruments, the rent flesh, her own precise movements. The soldier lying before her howled, and the walls of the temple chamber echoed it back tenfold.

“Mother of gods, stop—!”

“Oh, shut up,” said Alessia, bracing her elbow against his clavicle to try and stop the squirming. “And hold still, you’re only making it worse.”

“Bitch, youre makin’ it worse! It hurts!”

“Good! That’s how you know you’re not dead. Which is probably what you deserve, but not… quite… yet.” She stabbed her needle around the jagged hole in his side again. One last time and it’d be over, one last time he screamed.

“Aargh! Damned evil witches, damned temples—”

Alessia slapped her victim, hard. “Insult me all you like, but you will not blaspheme against the Polytheon in here. There, done. You’ll live, for what it’s worth.”

With the bleeding stopped Alessia turned away, bone-weary. Across the nave a dozen and more like scenes played out— some with screamed profanities, some with moans, and some in silence. The sisters flitted about like angels of death, praying for the lost souls of some and sending others back into the world for another measure of misery. She dipped her hands into the basin set in the midst of it all, the water near scalding though she’d been scrubbed too numb to feel it. A young acolyte rushed past to replace the pink rags on the altar with fresh before disappearing again.

“You enjoyed that.” The accusing voice behind her did make her flinch, even after three years. Still, she tried and failed to hold back a little grin.

“Is it not proper,” Alessia said, turning slowly, “to take joy from one’s work, Mother?”

“Don’t play clever with me girl, you well know what I mean.” Mother Tanusia was herself covered in gore that lent her glare of disapproval an unsettling aspect.

“Well why not? Hard to drum up much sympathy— these men are the lucky ones. Those they killed not as much.”

Tanusia shook a gnarly finger in Alessia’s red-streaked face. “That is not your concern, nor mine! Nothing outside these walls is, I’ve told you a thousand times.”

“I know, I know. Where’s this lot from, anyway?”

“Who can say anymore,” Tanusia sighed, “some pointless skirmish not far away, come to us from both sides. Hard to believe, but it was less savage when it was professionals doing the fighting. These poor fools know nothing but to hack at each other like lunatics. This war has to end soon, they’re running out of men to fight it.”

“Maybe they’ll start drafting women.”

“Don’t you even think that! You just try to find new reserves of patience, and sympathy. Be a shame for a bright thing like you to turn cynic so young.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“And remember, this temple serves as a hospital, not a torture chamber. Try to find some feverfew, or willowbark, something before you cut men open again.”

“Yes, Mother.” As Tanusia turned away to some other task, Alessia’s patient put an emphasis on the point by crying out anew.

“And will you please shut him up!”

Yes, Mother.”

 

Alessia and a few other sisters dozed on benches in the corner, too tired even to stagger back to the dormitory. Those who were going to die had mostly done so, and the ones who weren’t lay unconscious on the cots that littered the space. Fatigue only somewhat blunted the shock when the temple’s wide double doors boomed when struck from outside, then rumbled open.  What now? she thought with consternation.

Two columns of armed men marched into the nave led by an aged, grim-looking brute with black sable draped over his shoulders and dull mail armor from neck to knee. He carried a high-crowned helm in his right hand while the left cradled the hilt of a long, ugly sword at his hip. “Who’s in charge here?” The warlord wrinkled his nose at the stench of putrefying viscera while scanning the long nave, taking in the rows of wounded, the sisters, the acolytes, the bits of discarded bandage strewn about.

“Go fetch Mother,” Alessia whispered to Sister Livielle, “quickly.” She stepped forward. “May the gods light your path, Lord…?”

“Taurix,” the man spat. “High Marshal to King Pharamund.”

“Taurix. Welcome to the temple of the Artameran Polyth—”

“Whatever. I’m told that piece of shit Ludolphus what calls himself a general passed this way. Is that so?”

Alessia curtsied as she’d been taught to do before the high and mighty, ridiculous in her cold blood-drenched habit. “I’m sorry, but we don’t ask the names of those who visit, only that they come and go in peace.”

Taurix sighed. “He would’ve left some wounded men with you.”

Is he serious? Alessia looked him square in the eye. “Well as you can see we get wounded with some regularity; you’ll have to be more specific. There is a war on, you know.”

Taurix stared back down at her unblinking, and for a few seconds Alessia was sure he was going to run her through with that nasty sword. Oh, that was stupid, she thought. Instead he broke into a hard chuckle. “It’s well that you keep that mouth behind these walls, girl. Few live to speak that way to a lord of the Marches a second time.”

“What goes on here?” Mother Tanusia’s voice boomed as she strode from the rectory office. “So, has the royal struggle finally spread across the sea to Holy Artamera that an army invades a house of the Polytheon?”

Taurix turned to the woman, noted the stripe on her habit that signified her authority. “Not at all, Mother. At least not yet. In fact we’re grateful for the care of His Grace’s soldiers! Your house should look to be richly rewarded once these treasonous rebels are put down.”

“That we should live to see that day is all the reward we desire, my lord,” Tanusia replied with barely-concealed sarcasm.

“Yet, it seems you’ve made an unfortunate mistake.” Taurix’s tone suddenly became lighter, even more terrifying.

“Mistake?”

“Indeed! For I see that in addition to the king’s loyal defenders, you have among you a number of those very traitors.” Taurix tossed his helmet to another of his company, then stepped slowly over to a fellow with an amputated leg lying on one of the cots, insensate from the brandy it’d taken to calm him. Though blooded and torn, his tunic still bore the green badges of General Ludolphus and Countess Engwara—the ‘treasonous rebels.’ “Allow me, Mother, to lighten your burden.”

Before any could react he plunged his sword through the man’s belly and the cot, the tip stopping just short of the stone floor. The man jerked, eyes wide. Alessia let out a short, shrill scream and the acolytes and most of the sisters scattered from the nave in horror.

“No! How dare you!” Tanusia roared with such fury that some of Taurix’s own men took half a step backward. She ran to the doomed patient just as he slipped away into death, gurgling blood. “This house is sacred ground, you’ve no right—”

“Don’t lecture me, woman. Your temple’s inviolate only so long as you keep your oath to take part in no wars.”

“We’ve taken no part!”

“No? Look around— giving aid and comfort to the enemy seems to me to be very much taking part.”

“But…that’s absurd.”

“It’s an absurd world we live in, Mother.” Taurix moved to the next patient and raised his sword again. Alessia moved to dive between him and his victim, and with barely a thought the lord turned and struck her across the jaw, sending her flying backward. “Go among them,” he said to his retinue, “root out the traitors.” While Taurix dispatched the man beneath him the others fanned out across the chamber, checking each patient for identifying badges or marks. A few wounded tried to crawl away, succeeding only in making themselves targets. Screams rang out anew.

Powerless to stop the slaughter, Tanusia crept along the wall to where Alessia lay dazed, watching helpless as nearly half the lives they’d fought to save were snuffed out. “You…sick butcher,” the Mother hissed.

“Spare me the dramatics. As that cheeky bitch on the floor pointed out, there’s a war on! If you dare harbor criminals again, expect to be considered a military target. Next time it won’t be a smack in the mouth. Understood?”

Tanusia glared up at Taurix as she cradled Alessia in her arms. “Yes,” she spat with bitterness.

“Yes, what?

“Yes, lord.”

 

Alessia spat into the cloth, the blood her own this time. The whole right side of her face throbbed. Punishment from the gods for enjoying my job too much. The damage seemed limited to one lost tooth— a lighter penance than her patients had suffered.

Livielle touched her gently, like she was a drifty snowman to collapse at the barest mishandling. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Alessia answered, trying a weak smile and feeling another trickle on her chin. “Fine enough.” They’d finished the disposal of the new-made corpses, and the dark work weighed on them both. “I just can’t believe Mother groveled before that bastard, said ‘yes, lord’ like some fellating harlot…”

“What else could she do? What could anyone do?” For once Livielle forgot to pretend shock at such crude language.

“I don’t know. Something.”

“Like get her face bashed in? Didn’t do you much good.”

“That was dumb. But I couldn’t just stand there and watch those people get stuck like pigs.” Alessia flung a blooded rag into a bucket, feeling very tired all of a sudden.

“Best not think on it anymore,” said Livielle. “At least no other sisters were hurt, though a few acolytes had nightmares, poor dears.” She leaned in closer. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but…you already have a bit of a following.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Charging a monster like that, are you kidding? Sister Evandri’s calling you ‘the warrior priestess.’”

“Wha—that’s heresy!”

“Just a little one. The gods won’t mind.”

“Well it’s stupid,” Alessia scowled. “Tell her to stop it. Anyway the question now’s what to do about—”

“Sisters!” The cry came from Eudo, a simpleton who tended ground at the temple, and the only male with leave to come and go without escort. He tottered into the nave with a trembling lip.

“Eudo,” Alessia asked, speaking softly to try and calm him, “what frights you so?”

“Peoples is come!” He danced from one foot to the other and whined.

“More soldiers, like yesterday?”

“No, lowfolks. Some looks hurted.”

“No rest for the wicked,” sighed Livielle. “Alright Eudo, open the doors and we’ll get—”

“Wait.” Mother Tanusia appeared between them. “We must know where they come from first…who they bend knee to.” Some light, some strength had gone out of the woman since the confrontation. She would not meet either of the sisters’ eyes, nor even Eudo’s.

“What’s that matter?” asked Livielle.

Alessia already knew the answer, and her stomach churned at it. “Because we can’t risk the wrath of the great warlord a second time. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Tanusia nodded. “I’ve no choice. I won’t endanger the lives of the sisters and acolytes.”

“But charity is one of the gods’ commands,” Livielle insisted, “doubly so in time of war! How can we not—”

“If that beast decides to pay us another visit we won’t be providing charity to anyone at all. It seems this war has elevated a very different breed, and we must navigate them as best we can.”

Alessia felt bile mixing with the blood in her mouth. “So what, we pick sides and turn away whoever happens to be on the wrong one? What happens when Engwara gets herself one of these breed, comes and says the exact same thing? Who’ll you obey then? Or will you just shut out the world entire and wait for them to burn the temple down around us?”

Tanusia’s face reddened. “What would you have me do? What course would you suggest, sister?” Alessia just quivered in wordless, impotent rage. “Then hold your tongue and be content.”

She sent Eudo to a high window to question them. The peasants were the few to escape Taurix’s latest raids, and they piled against the door crying “Help us, by the gods!” because they’d been preached to all their lives about the charity of the Artameran Polytheon.

“That’s it then,” said Tanusia when Eudo brought an answer, defeated. “They’re Baroness Brathilde’s landbound. Whether they will it or no those people are enemies of Taurix, of Pharamund. We mustn’t let them inside.”

The gathered sisters stared at Tanusia as if she’d grown horns. “You can’t be serious,” Alessia said. “You’re condemning—”

Tanusia cut her off with a swipe of her hand. “The doors stay shut! That’s final.”

“Aye,” growled Alessia, “well gods damn us then.”

 

The wounded pushed higher and harder against the doors and pelted the building with cries, with curses and finally with rocks. Tanusia shut herself inside her cell with fists tight against her ears. Two days it persisted, and more than once Alessia moved to unbar the doors only to find Eudo parked there like a stone gargoyle, even to sleep. If she tried to sneak past he’d pop an eye open and whine, “Mother said no,” obedient to Tanusia’s command even if he did not understand it.

The pleas outside faded, then were gone. Tanusia emerged from her cell red-eyed and ordered the bar lifted. The doors opened and the late-day sun poured in orange light carrying with it a too-familiar smell, and as they swung inward bodies stiff with rigor mortis dropped to the ground. The outsides of the doors were riddled with gouges matched by splinters buried under the fingernails of the dead.