Tales of Meerstrand (VI): The Mason

One could argue that an invisible hand removed all godly protection from Horror’s Pit that morning: skies opened and rain poured since dawn that never really came through thick grey clouds, water caused mud slides that brought several large rock formations tumbling down into the pit, destroying parts of scaffolding and injuring several quarrymen, but one young elven lad by the name of Rigel lost his leg below the right knee, Dunstan mourned the loss together with the lad, for life of an elf was already harsher from birth, but a one-legged elf… Rigel was sobbing from pain and grief, only rain covering his tears as all quarrymen bit their lower lips in mourning as he was carried out on a stretcher. Dunstan did not know at the time that Rigel would take his own life that winter, unable to bear his shameful uselessness. The scaffolding had to be repaired twice that day until lunch hour due to heavy downpour; another disaster almost struck Dunstan’s own tent, when rumbling rocks came down, almost shattering his work into pieces. The entire Pit mobilized to clear the rubble so Dunstan could enter and upon inspection, the half-birthed enormous hand was intact, only mud covered it.

But the real disaster came even earlier that morning, before dawn, before the rain broke out from the sky, before children rose from their dreamlands: the rumble of horses galloping, men shouting in the distance woke the most outskirts dwellers of Horror’s End as several men walked out of their warm stone houses in damp, breezy morning air, blinking unbelievingly at a formation of riders. The knights were dressed in chain armour, with four colours, two rows of four riders for each colour, and a large carriage, half the size in length of a house, with man-sized back wheels and comparatively tiny front wheels, totally black, but with four-coloured shield for coat of arms on each side of the door, four black horses pulling it with reigns disappearing through a hollow window in the front: it might just have been the most expensive thing Horror’s End has ever seen.

In front of this procession rode a man, tall and broad-shouldered, with long red tunic covered with mirror-like chest armour, ball of flame engraved on it, his horse white and clean, even after a long journey, but most folk stared wide-eyed at his face: deep scar cut through his right eye, which was empty and appeared still fleshy, as if freshly cut; skin on top of his bald, meaty head seemed melted off like a ball of fire landed right there; his lips saw blade too as a small cut went from upper to lower lip, piercing in such a way that now on the left side the man couldn’t cover his yellowed teeth with full, sweet tooth lips. A helmet and a long sword with a ruby on its handles hung from the man’s waist belt.

In the grey morning light, the procession in red, teal, grey and moss green, with black carriage and twenty other riders behind, dressed in Meerstrand blue, moved with pace through the market square and stopped there, dismounting on command. The scarred man moved towards Quarryman’s rest as his followers held their horses, looking around the town with considerable amount of disdain. Before the man could open the door to the inn, Dubhan fell out of it, his beard slightly erratic, one side of moustache missing the usual silver binder, clothes a tad disheveled from being put on with haste, his usual ring set not present, aside from the signet ring on his right hand. The dwarf looked up at the guest and bowed.

“We were expecting you, sir” he said and looked behind the scarred man “and your entourage, of course. The quarters are ready, however” he glanced at the large cavalry again “we may not have enough for all, sir”

“That will not be a problem” the scarred man spoke in low, commanding voice and walked inside, Dubhan followed him with slight confusion “my men can sleep in tents near the quarry” he said absently looking around the tavern “wake everyone up. We must make introductions” the scarred one walked to the bar and without hesitation pulled out a bottle of fire water and a glass and poured himself a drink “I will want to speak with the mayor especially”

“Sir, I-we do not have a mayor” Dubhan, always sure of himself and his place in the world, felt cold sweat build up on his back “the town assembly, we state problems and delegate to townsfolk capable of solving them. It’s-it’s the way of Horror’s End, for generations now, sir”

The scarred man stared at Dubhan with his emotionless black eye for almost a minute, during which the dwarven publican could not figure out where his own eyes should look or his hands be put to not show the tension within him. Finally, the man lifted the glass full of brown drink to his lips, downed it all and brushed the open side of his mouth to catch the droplets of the drink.

“Then I will speak to the assembly. Now go. I wish to see everyone of import in ten minutes.”

“Yes, sir…?” Dubhan suddenly realised he does not know the name of his scary guest.

“Sigismund. General Sigismund”

Dubhan and Jostok, his orphan apprentice, rushed out of the inn, running from door to door and delivering the news fast. More and more people joined them and slowly, next to the colourful cavalry, another, grayer group of townsfolk gathered, both sides looking at each other cross-eyed. The soldiers, more than 50 of them, now were standing in two rows, their horses on their right side, the black carriage in front, unmoving, Sigismund casually inspecting the statue of The Four, seemingly unaware of the happenings around him. In ten minutes, as per Sigismund’s command, majority of townsfolk, mostly men, were in the square; the quarrymen, dressed in their work clothes, some with giant pickaxes on their backs, others brought hammers and other tools of their trades, with Dunstan and Cassandra there too while Robert brought his giant warhammer, riddled with runes and scratches; farmers, with Hobblecot himself present, brought their scythes and pitchforks; Master Inge with his elven helpers were armed with axes, the woodcrafter himself standing tall among his brethren, axes crossed in front of him, looking fiercely with his intense green eyes and brown hair tied and braided behind his head; tradeswomen did not stay idle either, gathering pitchforks, some hiding daggers beneath aprons and sleeves. All looked displeased and suspicious and were met with same ironclad looks from the soldiers. The tension between two groups kept the rain within the clouds, the air turned so thick it became hard to inhale, so men and women stood there, their breaths shallow, unmoving, only Sigismund seemed comfortable as a shark in these waters: he finally walked in the very middle between two groups and addresses the townsfolk:

“I am General Sigismund, Commander of the Knight-Protectors under the Fire Watcher” the scarred man spoke loudly, his voice echoing through the silence of Horror’s End, cutting right through the heavy air towards the townsfolk. Many tightened their grip over their improvised weapons “as your messenger I’m sure has informed you, we are here by the holy authority of The Four to inspect the work of Horror’s Pit and to address everyday problems of Horror’s End” he rolled his eye through the crowd of suspicious faces before continuing “I am aware that the size of our force can look menacing, but I assure you we intend no harm, but simply to ensure the productivity of the quarry.”

“What about this addressing of everyday problems you talkin’ about?” Albert, the weathered quarryman with two almost adult sons at his side yelled from Dunstan’s right “we have our fair share o’ problems, ’tis true, but we solve ’em just fine without no help, ‘specialy from foreign soldiers.”

True, true a murmur of agreement rippled through the crowd. Sigismund watched the reaction of townsfolk in front of him closely, then waved towards the carriage and one of the red soldiers marched over to it and opened the door.

“I am aware that soldiers might not know best when it comes to town affairs, however” he pointed at a group of eight men and women emerging from the dark depths of the carriage “here you see clerics of The Four, highly educated and skilled in stewardship and knowledgeable of the gods. They can help you surely.”

The group of clerics wore the same colours of The Four, two of each colour, their robes were much better kept than those of traveling clerics (they were nowhere to be seen) and their faces were washed and serene, all were staring at the crowd with smiles befitting proud parents. Several loud noises of spitting could be heard from the crowd. Then, another question:

“How long do yous plan to stay, sir?” this was Robert, his warhammer comfortably on his shoulder, towering over everyone else. Sigismund took a minute to answer, looking at the half-orc intently, as if inspecting.

“We do not plan to stay longer than five days. However, if we see our presence will be necessary for longer, we will stay longer” he paused for a while, waiting for mumbling to stop “the clerics are here to stay if they keep themselves useful.”

At that moment, the heavy clouds could no longer keep themselves still and slowly, drop by drop, unleashed the rain on the two crowds. They stood there for a few moments, then the folk of Horror’s End slowly moved away, returning to their day’s labor.

Within one day, the clerics that were brought by the carriage were everywhere, with soldiers escorting them while knocking on doors, preaching the goodness of The Four. Women and children, left over the day at home, were suspicious of the newcomers, but with their husbands gone to labour, they could not help but listen of the kindness of the The Four and their Watchers, could not keep their children from being inspected for illness by the clerics.

Like wildfire, news spread of a young girl, the youngest of Hobblecots, being healed by the grey clerics, where others could just watch her being consumed by fever; another talk of Greywalks’, one of the quarry working family, well being cleared of impurities by the magic of the moss cleric, this one even reached the pit within hours. By the end of second day, a lot of townsfolk were praying at the statue to The Four together with soldiers and clerics, learning from them, teal clerics giving away prayer books and telling all the wonders of the new faith around fires and red clerics built. More and more claimed magically healing where no help could be provided, saying that magic could come from gods after all and that these gods were merciful and giving, if only one prayed enough.

“Pfff, look at them” Robert nodded at growing mass of people, huddled around the statue in the market square “you give ’em a magic trick and they follow, no questions asked. Shame.” Dunstan and Robert were returning to their homes as usual on the fourth day of the Meerstrandians staying in Horror’s End. Both sat hunched forward, drained, and although the hazardous rain has stopped pouring today, their work in Horror’s Pit was more exhausting under the watchful eye of Sigismund and his red clerics: they were everywhere, their eyes laid on everything, every mistake felt amplified, every cut seemed to crack the stone more than usual, each pull on the rope slightly more difficult and every push of a cart just a bit more tedious. The worst was the lack of talk from the Meerstrandians, they simply looked without a word, took note in their vellums, expressionless, unreadable. This looming eye of an unknown master made work harder and joyless.

Dunstan received special treatment these days: one of red clerics observed him without moving away, day after day, observing every hit with the hammer, every step of the chisel, every stroke of the dust. Sometimes, Sigismund would visit and ask questions: where he trained, how long he worked and lived here, how many orders he had, what were his views on The Four and so on. Foresentum; will be 14 years now; 2 more after this; did not hold any in particular and so on. He answered honestly, but in short, fearing that detail would lead to more interrogation or cast baseless doubt. Much like a child, Dunstan felt guilty without a crime, as if his own father was questioning him.

“If it’s true about healings and whatnot, then surely they will feel better about this new faith” Dunstan looked back at the congregation as Argent pulled them forward towards home.

“I said it before and I’ll say it again” Robert waved his fist in the air “IF we had a mage with us, heck, even one of ’em acolytes, we could do the same thing. There’s no new gods ‘ere, just magic!”

“I know, my friend” Dunstan sighed with relief, finally seeing the lights coming from his own window “but life can be difficult and answers…hard to come by. Besides, I’m more worried about these soldiers running around than any new god.”

“I’ll say” Robert agreed “they are well-trained, I can tell, but they are here to intimidate for sure. Nasty business” he sighed as they stopped between their homes “you know, when I fought those Meerstrandians, they were something else. I cannot put ma finger on it, but they have this rage within ’em that truly scared folk and still does. I didn’t hesitate cuttin’ ’em down, but many did an’ that’s how the king lost the war. Meerstrandians, specially the red ones, they would impale poor sods after every battle, forests of ’em folks dyin’ slowly. Grim sight. These ones right here seem of the same sort, but tamed, like dogs, waitin’ for command. And Sigismund, that one is willin’ to give it, I know it, an’ I don’t like it one bit.

Dunstan listened to his friend of many years with mouth open. Never has Robert ever spoken of the war, only in small mentions of people and some places, but never in this much detail. Now Dunstan understood why and understood his friend’s uneasiness when the regiment arrived: he would even see him sit outside his own house, warhammer in hand, keeping guard, this probably being the reason why none of the houses were visited by the clerics on their street. Dunstan put his hand on Robert’s firm shoulder.

“Fifth day is coming, my friend. The soldiers will leave and all will go back to normal” he tapped his shoulder hard a few times, still doubting Robert felt it properly “now go to Birna, I’m sure she worries sick about you every day.”

“Aye, barely eats, that one” Robert and Dunstan jumped down from the carriage “and I keep tellin’ her, if anything’s wrong, take the girls and run, I would catch up, know our passages, but no, she just worries and nothing more.” Robert shook his head in disagreement before taking Argent away with the carriage, leaving Dunstan alone on the road.

“Quarryman’s rest tonite, mate!” Robert yelled back to the mason “Meerstrandians didn’t forbid that yet!”

“See you there!” Dunstan waved to his orcish friend and turned away towards his own home. The sun was setting fast and lights coming from inside the houses were brightening, white smoke gaining shape against darkening sky. Dunstan sighed, looking forward to the family warmth he’s about to receive: it felt like the turbulence in the Horror’s End didn’t touch the inside of his house: Cassandra was just as loving and warm, albeit had shorter temper, the girls, Ruby and Caroline, were everywhere, but just away enough to not get in trouble with their mother and Stennis was diligently working with Master Inge, honing his talent for woodcrafting more and more. The anticipation of this home warmth sent tingles through Dunstan’s body as he put his hand on the heavy handle of the front door and pushed it down.

But the warmth never came. Instead, as soon as Dunstan stepped in and touched his forehead to greet Feyra, he noticed a pair of unfamiliar, muddy marching shoes and cold…petrifying cold that hung in the air. He could hear muffled voiced behind the door to the dinning room, but Ruby and Caroline didn’t come out to greet him and there were no bowls of warm water or fragrant change of clothes for him to refresh himself. Dunstan sat down and took off his heavy footwear, weighed down further by sticky mud. His heart was fluttering and for the first time, he felt the presence of Gaila, the spirit of every cold thought and impending nightmare, grip the back of his neck and whisper chilling notions that ran down his spine. He pushed the door to the dinning room.

“Good evening, Master Mason” Sigismund greeted him from the table, where Dunstan usually sits “forgive my intrusion, but I came too early and your wife here was kind enough to let me stay and wait for your return.”

Stennis was there at the table too, wide eyed, looking at his father for reprieve. Cassandra, standing next to Sigismund, looked at Dunstan with worry, her hands occupied by their prized fire water she was obviously serving against her will, but out of fear. There were plates of dry and smoked meats – their winter hoard – and pickled vegetables, bread, butter and cider – a serving worth a whole feast and every plate already tried, crumbles in Sigismund’s plate alone.

“General” Dunstan nodded and closed the door behind him. He approached the round table, standing behind the chair opposite of Sigismund, where Stenning used to sit; the boy now was sat on the right side of Sigismund’s. Even though the fireplace was lit and the hearth was heard roaring, the cold that hung in the air penetrated all the way to Dunstan’s bones and he felt Gaila stroke his spine again with her cold finger, cackling silently behind him. He forced himself to not turn around “what brings you to our humble home at this hour?”

“I observed your work, I thought we could talk” Sigismund didn’t move his eye away from Dunstan, lifting his glass (a heavy-blown item of a set that Dunstan bought Cassandra during his visit in Forest Lodge) and Dunstan could see the handle of his sword resting at his side. The Sigismund signaled the mason to have a seat in his own home, at his own table. Dunstan nodded to his wife and son to leave and sat down in front of the scarred man. Cassandra and Stennis left the room and both men listened as their footsteps grew silent as they went upstairs and everything fell silent as a door closed. For a brief moment, both men, the mason and the soldier, sat looking directly at each other, Dunstan keeping Sigismund’s one-eyed gaze. Then the general spoke first:

“You are exceptionally skilled, Master Dunstan” although it was a compliment, Dunstan felt uncomfortable “especially for someone trained in that beggar hole Forsentum.” Sigismund took another sip of the fire water, as if to push down sickness.

“Forgive me for pointing it out, general, but Meerstrand’s walls wouldn’t be standing today without the vast knowledge of bricklaying Forsenites brought to the city” Dunstan’s heart beat fast under his muddy work shirt “Meerstand might be superior now, it is true, but Forsentum is still the capital of masonry.”

Sigismund gripped the heavy glass tighter, his face expressionless, his eye fixed on the man before him. His lips trembled into what could be called a grin, but Dunstan interpreted is a sign of annoyance and weighed his previous words, thinking he may have poked the bear too hard, but he wouldn’t let even this man disrespect his alma matter so. After a pause, Sigismund spoke again:

“You are, of course, correct” he said through gritted teeth “and I am glad to see that such a talented man now chose to live on Meerstrand’s side of history. The Four indeed smile on the city of the sea, wouldn’t you say?”

“As I told before, general, I’m in no position to say either way. My knowledge of The Four is very limited to form any concrete opinion.”

“Spoken like a truly educated man” Sigismund leaned back on the chair more comfortably, spinning the fire water in the glass that hung in his hand “you weigh before you speak, consider, before you think, and act only after you know the outcome. A true craftsman of the stone” the more Sigismund complimented Dunstan, the more he felt like a calf on a market day, being evaluated by his age, shape and aesthetics, only to be led to slaughter later, to honour Obela for good harvest. Much like Sigismund just said, he weighed his next words carefully.

“I am humbled by your words, general. However, you still didn’t state the reason you are in my home.”

“Indeed” Sigismund gulped down the remaining fire water and banged the glass on the table with considerable force “I am here, in Horror’s End, to inspect the pit, as I stated. What I didn’t say is that the Watchers are looking for…specialists in their respected fields for a grand project. I am here to provide that.”

“I am already under employment by the Watchers” Dunstan shrugged “if you want me to work exclusively for your masters, we may reach an agreement for an adequate compensation.” Sigismund made another pause while staring at Dunstan.

“Your work is coming along splendidly and will no doubt be a good tribute to the glory of The Four as it stands through ages in the Temple square” again the compliments sent Dunstan’s insides wriggling in discomfort.

“I’m happy that general hold my work in such high regard, but-”

“The Watchers require more personal involvement from you” Sigismund cut him off starkly “I have orders to bring you back to Meerstrand as soon as possible. The fifth day is coming before clerics take over Horror’s End. Tonight is the night I have to ride back to the temples and you must come with me.”

This time for sure, Dunstan heard long, screeching cackles of Gaila right behind him, as her hair no doubt wrangled around his entire body now, chilling his heart and mind.

“Clerics take over?” he managed to say, images of Stennis and his girls around the fire with those strange, serene people in colourful robes.

“Horror’s End needs guidance towards the righteous path of The Four” Sigismund slowly, silently, almost tenderly put his beefy hand around the sheath of his sword, the other still resting on the table “this town has been shown leniency no other place in Meerstrand has seen, in part due to pit’s productivity and your presence, once we received proof of your good work. It all end now, as The Four must be celebrated throughout all lands, making Horror’s End a blemish in their purifying light” Sigismund nodded as if accentuating the righteousness of his impromptu sermon “clerics, as disciples of the Watchers, will bring this place into the eyes of The Four.”

“With a help of soldiers, no doubt.”

“Faith is a mysterious force” Sigismund sighed with obviously pretended disappointment, a vicious smile now openly playing on his cut lips “sometimes it comes easy, through example and acceptance. Other times, it needs more brute encouragement. The Watchers are ready for both” he stood up, moving the chair with considerable sound “but we have conversed enough, Master. The road is long and time is short.”

“I have not agreed to this!” Dunstan mimicked Sigismund’s actions, standing up, feeling panic and anger boiling inside.

“I’m afraid I do not have the time to convince you” Sigismund walked around the table, hand still firmly on the sheath of his sword “your options are limited here. I will make it even simpler: your services or your entire family on spikes. I’m sure your good friend told you all about it, he’s so knowledgable of our ways.”

Dunstan understood with horror that this man meant what he said and memories of Robert’s haunting tale of war with Meerstrandians emerged in daunting images of his family among countless others on forests of spikes, crying, moaning and bleeding in torturous slow death. Dunstan didn’t have time to answer as two heavy, gloved hands of soldiers in red landed on both of his shoulders and pulled him out into the night. His feeble protests were met with harsh punches to his sides until he was out of breath, tossed into wagon with small cage, where he didn’t have room to stand up. Through the pain he heard shrieks and recognised Cassandra as she was flung back to the threshold of their house, crying and shrieking like a wraith, only being held back by Stennis, who, through tears, managed to keep his mother from soldiers battering her mercilessly. Dunstan saw the girls shrivelled together, looking through the dark window of the second floor. He felt, for the very first time in his life, powerless, his devotion to Kalvi and seeking out creation betrayed him into uselessness when protecting himself and his family was needed.

Sigismund jumped on his snow white steed prepared for him and signalled for the procession to move along and so they did, with a prisoner and wagon, lit by torches, Sigismund in front and eight red soldiers on all sides. Dunstan could see through the grates that Robert picked up his warhammer through the window in his house, but waved him no, don’t get involved, my friend. The half-orc froze, unsure how to act and just stared at the procession slowly move away through the street. The mason saw more scared faces staring through windows, quickly disappearing behind curtains as the procession passed by. Dunstan could feel bitter tears building up in his throat, but he couldn’t blame them: they had their own families, their own lives to protect, he probably would have done the same as them, he’s no different, Feyra watch over them all, especially over Stennis and the girls and Cassandra. Feyra keep them safe even before this mad heresy. Feyra be kind and warm to Horror’s End, don’t let darkness creep into our lives, while we keep your fires burning. Feyra be kind.

Praying fervently, laying there, in a cage, on a thin layer of hay, in the dead of night, was the last time Dunstan saw Horror’s End.


The End

Previous tales of Dunstan:

Tales of Meerstrand (IV): The Mason and Tales of Meerstrand (V): The Mason

 

 

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