by Brian Craig
There is, said the story-teller, a part of Bretonnia's coast which
stand face to face with the Great Western Ocean, and engages in a
constant contest with the see. Sometimes the ocean retreats to expose
new land, but in the end it takes back what it has yielded, and
sometimes more. The legends of this region warn that when land is
given by the sea it will one day be reclaimed. Thus, the wisdom of
legend says that fields may be planted year after year when the clean
rain has washed away the salt from the soil, but that no man should
claim lordship over such fields, because any citadel which is built
there will one day be broken by the big grey waves.
But there are in Bretonnia, as in all human lands, men who so yearn to be lords over their own kind that they are deaf to the wisdom of lore and legend - and so it happens than whenever new fields are given by the sea to hungry toilers, there come after them those who would be their Overlords, bearing warrants from kings who imagine that they have power to grant such favours.
These lordlings build their castles, around which towns inevitably grow; they raise their petty armies and begin that business of robbery which the powerful call taxation. They grow fat and rich, and devote themselves increasingly to the cruel pleasures of tiranny and the vain pursuit of luxury - and sometimes turn, as the most corrupt of that kind often does, to the secret worship of forbidden gods.
Then, the common folk cry out in their anguish and their desperation. They look to the east, in the hope of summoning magicians who serve the better gods to deliver them from their daemon-led lords; but should hopes of that kind prove futile, they must look to the wesr, whence come the great grey waves which will drown their fields and their masters alike and clear the way for a new beginning.
The story which I have now to tell is of such a petty citadel, which was named by its founder Ora Lamae, and which had fallen after many generations into the untender care of one Bayard Solon, who governed the land in the name of Charles II, the father of our own vainglorious king. Bayard Solon was himself governed - ultimately by daemons, many said, but more immediately and more obviously by his daughter Syrene, who was possessed of unnatural beauty and unnatural appetites. Her reign over her father and his people had not lasted long before the angry people began to implore their gods to send a champion to destroy her, and waited most anxiously to see if their prayers would be answered.
There dwelt at that time in the foothills of the mountains which are called the Pale Sisters a grey, gnarled priest of Solkan named Yasus Fiemme. He had travelled widely through the northern land, hunting out necromancers and daemonologists and countless hedge-wizards of dubious repute. He had bested all those he had faced, for he had ever been a man of iron, merciless and utterly incorruptible - perhaps the finest servant Solkan had ever found in a land where the Gods of Law had few followers.
But even great magicians grow old, and the time had come when Yasum Fiemme formed a different ambition, and built a shrine to his angry god, intending to take an apprentice to whom he would teach all that he knew, and train most carefully, thus preparing a scourge for the followers of evil who would be fiercer even than himself, fit to destroy the most powerful ennemies a Man of Law might face.
The apprentice he found was a youth named Florian, who was clear of eye and strong in wind and limb, and to this boy he taught all the disciplines of strictness, austerity and repression, with such rigour that he made the boy absolute tyran over his own flesh and inflexible commander of his own will. He taught him also the secret language of Law and the awesome lexicon of banishment which gave power to Law's servants to drive daemons back to their hellish seats and cleanse the world of change and chaos.
For thirteen years Yasus Fiemme kept Florian by his side, shaping and refining him in body and mind, straitening his every thought within the lineament of Law, until he was perfectly certain that he had made an instrument for Solkan more powerful and more skilled than he himself had been in his younger days. And when the boy was twenty-and-one, Yasus Fiemme prayed to Solkan for a sign which would tell him what to do next, and where to send the youth to do the work of Law.
In response to these prayers, Yasus Fiemme was sent a dream, in which he saw the stern and stony face of his wrathful god, which said to him: "There is a city named Ora Lamae, far to the west. It is a very tiny city, but it harbours an evil out of all proportion to its size. It will provide the perfect test for the blade you have forged in my name, which will temper him if he is sound, and shatter him if he is weak. Give him my amulet of volcanic stone, and bid him remember the secret words which you have taught him. Send him forth to reclaim Ora Lamae for the cause of Law, but warn him sternly lest his resolve be weakened by temptation."
And so Yasus Fiemme brought forth an amulet of black volcanic rock, carved with powerful signs, and hung it around his acolyte's neck. Then he gave to the youth a Staff of Law, very straight and plain, cut from the heartwood of a great tall pine, and instructed him to use it well. And then, without a tear in his eye or any other signal of affectionate feeling, he pointed the way to Ora Lamae, and sent Florian forth upon the rocky road.
The regions which Florian crossed on his way to the ocean's shore
were sparsely populated, save for a narrow strip to either side of
the great highway which run south from L'Anguille towards the ruins
of once-great Mousillon.
There were few followers of the Gods of Law in those lands, but he found many to give him bread among the peasants and priests who walked in fear of dark magic and knew him for its ennemy. He was thirty days and one upon the road, which was often hard even for one as lithe and strong as he, but in the end he came to the lush lowlands which the sea had long since abandoned to the manifold crops of mankind: to turnips and beets; to barley and wheat; to lentils and apple trees.
The walls of Ora Lamae were not so very high, but the castle itself had one high tower which loomed above the rest, black and forbidding. The sea could not be seen from the town wall, and was not often in the thoughts of those who had made their homes within the wall.
The guardsmen at the gate had grown complacent in the ten long years since pirates had last attacked the town, and Florian came unchallenged Ora Lamae. He went immediately to the street of shrine beyond the market-place, there to lay down a mat - as is the custom of wandering preachers in Bretonnia - from which he could deliver his sermons and hear the pleas of any who had complaints to lay before the Gods of Law.
The rumour of his arrival in the town passed quickly through the streets, and crowds soon gathered about his mat, curious as ever to see a new spellcaster and measure his worth.
These crowds were not too over-anxious to heed the message which he preached, which extolled the virtues of stern discipline and self-restraint, but they were ready enough to admire his strength and handsomeness, which seemed all the greater by virtue of his coldness. They were ready, too, to bring him news o f many evils which were said to be abroad in the town - of children seized and murdered for their innocent blood, of lewd displays and dread perversions practised within the court, of strange madnesses and daemonic possessions and animal familiars.
For three days they brought him such tales, and sometimes half a loaf of bread and a jug of wine, and in all that time he did not stray far from the street of shrines.
While he heard what the people had to tell him, Florian was gradually overcome by sickening horror. He had little understanding of the magnifying ways of rumour and repetition, for his sheltered life had given him no opportunity to see how the best and least offensive of people lust after lurid gossip, and increase it when they pass it on. He heard what was said of the Lord of Ora Lamae and his gaudy daughter, and he believed every word of it. By nightfall on the third day he was resolved to bring down the wrath of Solkan upon the town, in the fullest measure which his virtues could contrive.
But when he laid himself prone upon his mat that night, to offer up his prayers and beg for guidance from his god, he found only darkness and confusion in his mind, and though he strove as mightily as he could to see with his inner eye no vision came. And when the criers called the hour after midnight, and all was still in the streets, there came to him a messenger: a gold-haired boy in a white tunic, who bid him to follow.
Follow he did, through the winding alleys behind the street of shrines to an arched doorway in a tall , forbidding wall. Beyond the doorway there were dim-lit mazy corridors and flights of stairs, which turned him about in his course so many times that he felt sure he could never retrace his steps without a guide.
Eventually, the messenger brought him into an apartment more brightly lit than the corridors, where there awaited him upon a crimson couch a woman no older than himself. Her hair was dark, but sleek enough to glitter as it caught the light; her brown eyes were no less lustrous; and her lips were glossed with red, so that all her features seemed radiant. There was incense burning in the room, and the intoxicating vapours teased the mucous membranes of Florian's nose.
"You are Florian, priest of Law," said the woman, in a voice which was low and honey-sweet. "How quickly the news of your coming has spread through our realm!"
"And you are Syrene, called sorceress," he replied, "whose infamy has long been known in its every quarter. Do you summon me here to work for my destruction?"
She only laughed at that, and said: "I summoned you to see what you are like, and to show you what it is that you have sworn to destroy. Look at me, Florian, and imagine if you can what pleasures you could find in me, if you only had the wit to seek them out. Behold me, son of man, and ask whose face you would rather see in your dreams, when the burden of waking is lifted from your soul. Am I not more beautiful than Solkan?"
Florian's reply to this was to raise his Staff of Law, and point it at her heart. "Do you deny, daughter of Bayard Solon," he said, "that you have consorted with daemons? Do you denythat you have commited abominable crimes against man and Law alike?"
She placed her hand over her heart, but the gesture was a mocking one, making an insincere pretence of injury.
"I deny nothing," she replied, "for if there are pleasures which I have not yet tasted, I would stop at nothing to obtain their savour. If daemons can bring me exstasy, I will yeld myself to daemons; if the sufferings of others will thrill my blood, I will contrive that suffering. Pleasure, not Law, is the best measure of the things of this world, and where there is pleasure, there can be no crime. You do not know it now, but perhaps when you sleep, good Florian, your dreams will tell you a higher truth than your angry God of Law would like you to hear."
Then Florian began to chant the words of power which Yasus Fiemme had taught him, calling upon Solkan to come to his aid in blasting the enchantress from the face of the earth, but still she laughed, and the cloud of incense billowed about her until she was utterly hidden from view.
He heard her voice, saying: "Hearken to me, handsome youth, and learn that there is no sternness in all the world which cannot be melted by a loving heart."
But in answer he cried: "No! It shall not be!" And he called again on Solkan to aid him in his struggle.
Then it seemed that something struck him down, and when he rose again to his feet he found that he was no longer in that chamber, but was instead upon his mat beneath the stars, in the quiet street of shrines.
Florian immediately fell prone upon his mat, and called upon
Solkan to give him strength. And when, in the fullness of time, he
allowed himself to sleep, his sleep was quite untroubled by dreams
save those of punishment and righteous wrath, and the seductive image
of the sorceress Syrene was kept at bay.
In the morning, men-at-arms came to Florian and seized him in the name of Bayard Solon, and conveyed him through the alleyways behind the street of shrines to a postern gate in the castle wall. Once inside they took him swiftly to the dungeons, where they cast him down into a noisome and filthy pit, replying to his protests that the laws of Ora Lamae reckoned it an offence to hear treason as it was to speak it, and that he was guilty of both. They put a huge flat stone over the mouth of the pit to seal him in, and left him in the darkness.
This, he knew, was the beginning of his testing. Solkan had allowed his ennemies to cast him down so that he might rise again, if he could, to be a proper instrument of the wrath of Law. With this in mind, he embraced the grimy stones of his prison, and began an arcane chant which was his declaration of war against the forces which sought to hold his power in check.
"I will make the stone live!" he swore to himself. "I will make the earth itself rise against those who have polluted it!"
For three days and three nights he continued his chant, drawing the power of Solkan into his suffering body. His captors brought him neither food nor water, but he did not care, for there was a different nourishment working in his soul.
As he pronounced the final verses of his exorcism he felt the amulet upon his breast grow hot and bright, and the pit was filled with with the cold and silver light of Law, which recognized no colours. The Staff of Law which he held in his two hands throbbed with power, so that when he touched it to the stone wall that confined him the stone seemed to peel away, splitting asunder to make a path for him which led outwards and upwards, toward the very heart of Ora Lamae's citadel - and as he marched upon the new-formed stair he began a new and triumphant chant, which grew louder and louder as the voice of Solkan joined with his in a mighty hymn to Order and Destruction.
When he came again into the corridors of the citadel he was met by men-at-arms with halberds and partizans, who tried to hack at him and strike him down, but he whirled his staff about him and the power flowed from its end to break their weapons and drive them to their knees.
"I am Law!" he sang, between the choruses of his awesome spell. "Temptation has not touched me, and passion has no place in my heart! I am Law, and I am come to deliver retribution in the name of Solkan, scourge of change and chaos!"
There came against him then a host of strange shadows - beings of other worlds, still half-confined there, which took the guise of monsters in exerting their vicious will upon the hedonists of Ora Lamae. But their talons and their fangs and their deadly stings could no more prick him than the clumsy weapons of the soldiers. His amulet burned and his staff twirled, and the monstrous shadows were swept into whirlpools in the air which denied them their horrid aspect and swallowed them up entire.
"Daemons, loose your hold upon this place!" he sang, swollen with honest pride in his virtue and his power. "Evil, begone! I am Law, and cannot be resisted! I am Law, and will take my course!"
And so, with Solkan guiding his footsteps, Florian came to that part of the castle of Ora Lamae which was made into a palace for its Lord and its Mistress, where the walls were hung with tapestries and curtains, and the furnishings were a riot of colour and comfort.
The colour was blasted from cushions and tapestries alike by the cold white light of Law; the burning incense was gutted in its pots. Crystal shattered, spilling dark red wines to stain the floor, and from somewhere in the whirlwind of righteous wrath came the sound of screaming - but Florian saw nothing, so high was the pitch of his excitement now. His mighty voice boomed out the syllables of power, and the very earth awoke, as he had promised it should, to do the bidding of Law.
"Solkan! Solkan! Solkan!" he cried, with the rapture of possession, and the icy coldness of unbreakable resolve.
And when the spell was finished, and he looked about him, he found
that he had come to the very top of Ora Lamae's tower, and stood now
on the high platform where the sentries were put to watch the silver
ribbon of the distant sea for the white of pirate sails. No sentry
was on rampart now, but only the Man of Law with his mighty staff,
which had cut the heart of daemonic corruption from the court of
Bayard Solon, and cauterized the wound with cold white fire.
He heard a sound behind him then, and turned to see the sorceress Syrene stumbling upon the rampart. He thought for a moment that she was come to bring one last blow to be struck against him by the forces of evil, but she had no weapon in her hand nor daemonic power in her eyes. She no longer shone with her unnatural glamour, and had lost the natural bloom of youth along with her stolen glory.
She was dull now, and helpless.
He looked at her, and said: "See what your temptations have come to, my pretty princess! How feeble were your charms, against the strength of Law! Did you really think that you could awaken lust in one such as me, who has Yasus Fiemme to teach me and Solkan for my inspiration? Learn, then, how impotent evil is against the true will and the stern soul!"
And when she looked at him, he saw in her eyes that she had indeed learned what folly it had been to oppose him so lightly with laughter and temptation. He saw that she knew pain now, as well as pleasure, and knew which was stronger in the world, and what price was ordained by destiny for the luxurious to pay.
She did not call him fool now, nor did she seek to wake his passion with the promise of her flesh. Instead, she only begged him for his help, pleading with him to save her life - to save her from the very forces which she had sought to command.
"I will be whatever you want me to be," she said. "I will do whatever penance you demand. Only save me from the vengeance of the people, and the wrath of the daemons with which I made treaty. Only save me, now that you have destroyed all that I had and all that I loved."
And then, as Florian stared at her, she fell upon her knees, and put her arms across her bosom, as though trying to hide within herself from everything that was outside her.
Florian looked down at her, and suddenly, because he could not help himself, he felt a pang of pity.
Then the Staff of Law became quiet in his hand, as though it were only wood. And the amulet upon his chest ceased to burn with righteous fire, and became as heavy as a dead stone. And the grandiose spell which had possessed his mind and made him more than human faded in his imagination to a plaintive echo.
But still, he could not help himself.
He looked at the frail woman who had been the sorceress Syrene, and saw again through the dullness of her presence the brightness of what she once had been. Lust did not trouble him, so well had Yasus Fiemme taught him what a Man of Law must know and what a Man of Law must be - but pity, in spite of all that he had done, he had not conquered. The temptation to lust he had resisted, but he had not properly learned that there were in the world other temptations which might touch his heart.
Then he knew that the test of worthiness which had tried his power against the might of Ora Lamae's daemons was not yet done, and that as a sword of Solkan he was not yet tempered, and might yet break.
He opened his mouth to speak to the stricken Syrene, but for a fateful moment he did not know what to say. When he did speak, it was to damn himself, for what he said was: "Do not weep, my lady. Perhaps there is forgiveness in the world as well as Law."
He looked away towards the west, to hide the feeling which had cracked the ice that Yasus Fiemme had laboured so long to put about his heart and soul. Then he saw something which made him catch his breatj in fearful surprise.
From the fields and the farmhouses of the realm people were on the move, with their horses and their loaded wagons and their flocks of geese, carrying whatever they could upon their backs.
They were not heading towards the town, but were trudging eastwards, away from the distant sea, as if they had known from the beggining that what he who had come to claim their lands for Law would fail in his resolve.
He wanted to call out to them, to tell them that there was no need for them to flee, because he had cleansed the town and the castle of evil - but when he opened his mouth, he found that he had no voice.
And when he looked again to the west, he saw that the great grey waves were already beggining to eat up the land which the sad cold sea had given for a while to the charge and use of man.