P R O L O G U E
Brother Pinower hooked a finger inside the collar of his brown woolen robe and jerked it back and forth, suddenly feeling uncomfortably warm. And itchy, so itchy, as if a thousand little insects were crawling across his skin. But it wasn't the sun or the wind that had this young and healthy rising voice in the Abellican Church squirming. He knew that he should leave the wall immediately to report the dramatic and troubling sight before him, but he found that his legs would not answer his call. He couldn't turn away but was mesmerized, as were the other brothers of Chapel Abelle who were working on the main wall this day, by the long lines of ghastly wounded men.Ghastly wounded and with many dead along the road behind the lines, no doubt.
"Someone inform Father," another dumbfounded monk managed to remark.
The sound seemed to break Pinower's paralysis. "Set them up in the courtyard," he instructed his many juniors. "Gather servants with blankets and fresh water and brothers with all the soul stones we can muster." He cast a pensive glance down the long slope to the southeast, to the seemingly endless line of casualties. He tried not to think about the many excruciating deaths he would witness that night.
When he climbed down from the wall, the horrible vision mercifully lost to him, Pinower found his footing and his purpose, and he sprinted across the wide courtyard, past the lower buildings of the gigantic chapel complex to the main keep and the office of Father Yurkris Artolivan, the oldest man in the Order of Abelle.
Artolivan looked every bit of his more than eighty years that day, slumped behind his desk, his skin sagging, his eyes dull and weary. Even his sparse, white hair seemed thinner and lifeless. He glanced up, as did his attendants, when Pinower rushed in unannounced.
"Wounded arrive from the battles," Pinower said, gasping for breath. "Many."
Artolivan exchanged concerned looks with his attendants.
"The rumors of the fighting in Pollcree?" one of those younger brothers remarked, for indeed they had heard only a few days before that two great forces were closing in on the small village from opposite ends and were sure to meet in bloody battle. Pollcree wasn't far from Chapel Abelle, barely a day's hard ride, and if these reports were to be confirmed by the arrival of the wounded this day it would mark by far the closest any of the heavy fighting had come to Chapel Abelle.
"Many?" Father Artolivan asked.
"More than all of those wounded we have seen cumulatively," Brother Pinower replied. He could not be certain if that was technically true, but it certainly seemed so from the view on the wall. The old man rubbed a hand across his weathered and wrinkled face and with great effort pulled himself up from his chair. The nearest attendant brother offered an arm of support, but the proud Artolivan brushed it away and moved from around his desk.
"If there are men of Pollcree among their ranks, it would not do to keep them here," Brother Pinower reasoned. "I know our agreement, but they are too close to home. I would fear retribution or attempts at escape." Artolivan paused and nodded, flashing a yellow smile at young Pinower. "You look better since you were put in charge of handling the prisoners," he said, a rare compliment from the man known as the father of the Order of Abelle. "Some of that paleness is at last retreating from your cheeks."
Pinower shifted uneasily from foot to foot, not even beginning to know how to respond.
"So, too, have you realized a confidence to speak of such policy in a room full of your superiors," said Artolivan.
Brother Pinower's shoulders slumped, fearing that he had overstepped his authority here. He glanced around at the older monks, all of whom were staring at him.
"We need such confidence in these dark times, Brother Pinower," said Artolivan, and several of the others cracked smiles that put Pinower at ease. "I have watched you grow beyond my expectations through this time of crisis."
Pinower felt his face blush fiercely.
"Crisis," Artolivan repeated, suddenly sounding like he was tired. So very tired. Artolivan and the warring lairds had worked out a compromise to allow the various chapels of the Order of Abelle, particularly the im mense Chapel Abelle, to be used by both sides in the ongoing and escalating war between Laird Delaval and Laird Ethelbert as a neutral repository for the many prisoners taken on the field and, of course, as a point of medical care for all the wounded of either side. That was the best role for the Order of Abelle, Artolivan had rightly decided, a way to bring some manner of order and peace to a land ravaged by continuing war.
Thus, Chapel Abelle had become a dumping ground for prisoners from both the warring lairds, Ethelbert of the southeasternmost Holding of Honce, Ethelbert dos Entel, and Delaval, the most prominent and powerful laird in all the land, who ruled the strategic and fortified city at the southernmost navigable spot on the great river, the Masur Delaval. Scores of prisoners, hundreds even, had come into the increasingly vast complex of Chapel Abelle over the last months.
Brother Pinower had been the one assigned to oversee them, to heal their wounds, to put them to work, and to ensure that this encampment of opposing sides had remained secure and peaceful. His work had earned him praise from Artolivan and many of the other older brothers, and the young Pinower had felt as if his contribution here had been in the truest spirit of the tenets of Abelle. He used those thoughts to bolster his courage at that moment, for he knew that this day would be different. Of the prisoners who had come in before today, few had been seriously wounded. The battles had been so far- off that any soldiers grievously injured had not survived the long and arduous journey. Thus, before today, most coming to Chapel Abelle had suffered only minor wounds or no wounds at all. They were simply prisoners, who, in return for their lives, had taken an oath that their stake in the fighting had ended and they would serve out the end of the war in hard labor. Instead of killing their Honce brothers who happened to be fighting on the side of the other laird, Delaval's men would toil for the monks and their never- ending construction on this, the greatest chapel, perhaps the greatest complex, in the known world.
"Which banner, Ethelbert or Delaval?" Artolivan asked, his voice slurring, as if he had been drinking. He had not.
"I could not discern, Father. But likely both, I believe, by the sheer number of men involved."
Artolivan and the senior brothers exchanged looks again, but this time of doubt. Someone had won and someone had lost, and while many of the wounded would no doubt be men of both lairds, the prisoners who would remain behind in civil captivity would be of one faction or another.
On the ball of one foot, the small and lithe brown- skinned woman slowly pivoted. She stayed in perfect balance, ultimate grace, as she brought her other leg up teasingly, knee bent at first, but then straightening to become perpendicular with her body.
At the same time, the soft, silken robe she wore slid away from her smooth flesh, revealing her delicate foot and calf, her smooth thigh all the way to her hip.
Though deeply entranced in her dance, moving with the precision of a warrior and the discipline of a Jhesta Tu mystic, Affwin Wi still managed to glance from the corner of her large, dark eyes at the old man sitting and watching.
The septuagenarian, Laird Ethelbert of the southeasternmost Holding of Honce, gave a great sigh at that alluring turn and revealing movement of the woman's soft clothing.
Affwin Wi smiled a little bit outwardly and a great deal inwardly. She heard the longing and the love in the old laird's sigh, the wistful dreaminess in his still sharp eye. She entertained him, but she was no harem piece, no subservient or helpless creature.
She was, or had been, Jhesta Tu. She could outfight any man or woman in Ethelbert's army, and he knew it. She carried great power and great in de pen dence, and she was here, dancing before him, because she chose to be and not because he had ordered her.
And that gave her power.
She danced on and on, to one sigh after another from the man who wanted to consume her in passion but no longer could.
Gradually, Ethelbert's eyes closed, a look of great contentment on his face. Affwin Wi danced over to him and slid down onto the arm of his throne beside him, hugging his face against her small breasts until he began breathing in the deep rhythms of pleasant sleep.
Smiling still, Affwin Wi left the room, to find Merwal Yahna, young and strong, his virility shown in his hardened warrior muscles and exaggerated by the imposing profile of his shaven head. He wasn't large and bulky like so many of the greatest Honce warriors, who required such brawn to swing their gigantic swords and axes, but lithe and taut, a warrior of the desert and the fighting arts favored there, where speed and precision overcame bulk.
"I do not like that you dance for him," said the man, whom she had trained in the ways of the Jhesta Tu, her finest student.
She laughed dismissively.
"He loves you!"
"He cannot make love to me," Affwin Wi reminded as she reached up her hand and gently stroked Merwal Yahna's chiseled shoulder and upper arm. "He desires it but is too old."
"But you would let him if he could," the man accused.
"Your jealousy flatters me," Affwin Wi replied playfully. "And excites me." She moved toward the man alluringly, but he grabbed her by the upper arms and pulled her back to arm's length.
"You would!" Merwal Yahna growled.
With a subtle roll of her arms, Affwin Wi brought her hands up, under, and then back out over Merwal Yahna's grasp, her elbows breaking his hold. She caught a grip on his forearm as she pressed his arms wide, and let her hands slide up until she had him firmly by the wrists. A movement subtle, gentle, and effective, as was Affwin Wi.
"We are here to fight," Merwal Yahna reminded her. "We are paid as mercenaries, not whores!"
Affwin Wi laughed disarmingly. "We are employed by Ethelbert." "To fight!"
"And so we have and so we will. His warriors look upon us with awe," said Affwin Wi. "He pays us well, but is there nothing more?"
Her conniving grin gave Merwal Yahna pause, and he stared at her curiously.
"Ethelbert is the ruler of a great city and land with wealth to rival the sheiks of Jacintha," she said. "He has no heir."
Merwal Yahna, not even fighting her hold, could only sigh at the ever- pragmatic attitude of his lover. Affwin Wi had no shame about her body or about lovemaking. To her, all of her physical being was merely a conduit to help her attain the emotional and spiritual goals- or in this case, the simple power offered by her alliance and dalliances with Ethelbert. She had never pretended to be anything other than a woman who would have her way. No man- not Ethelbert, not even Merwal Yahna- could ever possess her.
"I grow warm and hungry when I dance," she purred, her voice suddenly husky. "Are you going to disappoint me?"
Merwal Yahna tugged his hands free and pulled Affwin Wi in for a crushing hug and passionate kiss. He tried to bend her backward to slowdrop her to the thick pillows spread about their room, but with an easy step and a twist of her pretty feet it was he, not she, who went down on his back.
Merwal Yahna was not disappointed.
Two banners preceded the lines into Chapel Abelle's courtyard soon after, one of Laird Delaval and the other of the third great city of Honce, the port of Palmaristown. The pennants came in side by side, a curious arrangement in these times, when the arrogant Laird Delaval was claiming unequivocal kingship of the whole of the land. But when Father Artolivan, no stranger to Palmaristown, noted the man riding the armored chestnut stallion before the banners, he surely understood. The large warrior held up his hand to stop his entourage, then trotted the chestnut stallion over to the group of monks and dismounted with great ease, a man obviously accustomed to riding in full and decorated bronze armor.
"Prince Milwellis," one of the brothers greeted when it became apparent that Father Artolivan was struggling to recall the young warrior's name. "How fares your father, Laird Panlamaris of Palmaristown?" "Well, Brother . . ." the man replied and motioned as if he, too, could not remember a name.
"Jurgyen," the monk explained.
"Indeed, and I do recall seeing you at my father's court."
"And this is Father . . . ?"
"Artolivan, yes, that name is known to me," said Milwellis. "A fine day to be in such company, Father." He bowed low in respect. "A fine day?" Father Artolivan replied. "You have many outside who might not agree with your description."
"The battle was won, and that is no bad thing."
"Won at great cost."
"Pollcree?" Brother Pinower asked, and Milwellis snorted.
"It once was," the warrior replied. He pulled off his helm and shook his great shock of red hair, which bounced thick about his shoulders. The flippant response brought a sour look to the faces of some of the brothers, Artolivan included, but that only made Milwellis snicker even more. Brother Pinower decided then and there that he didn't much care for this one.
"I did not know that Palmaristown had joined in the fighting," said Father Artolivan.
"We threw in with the claims of Laird Delaval long ago."
"Yes, yes, of course, the brothers of the Chapel of Precious Memories so informed us," Artolivan pressed. "But I did not know that your army had marched."
"No choice to it," Milwellis explained. "Laird Ethelbert has procured the allegiance of the many holdings along Felidan Bay and even on the Mantis Arm," he explained, referring to the long stretch of rocky coastland of easternmost Honce. "They had claimed neutrality, but no more. Ethelbert the dog has raised the stakes in this war."
"Many of those same seaside holdings have been sailing for Laird Delaval, have they not?" Father Artolivan interrupted with startling forcefulness, the man clearly tired of all this seemingly pointless warfare.
"They would have been wise to hold with their first choice, then," said Milwellis. "Their march to Pollcree was no more than an act of the deepest desperation by Ethelbert. Laird Delaval has established the center around the Holding of Pryd, commanding a line from that crossroad all the way to the Belt- and- Buckle in the south. Desperate Laird Ethelbert thought to flank that line and strike at Palmaristown, but rest assured that the tactic has failed."
"I will rest assured when this war is at its end, and not before," said Father Artolivan.
"We near that day!"
"So we have been hearing for many months. And yet, the wounded and the prisoners come in at greater pace each week."
"Many wounded today, I fear," said Milwellis, and he turned to glance back at the gate, where his soldiers were bringing in dozens of injured men.
"They will fill the courtyard and more," Brother Pinower dared to interject.
"Nay, that is the lot of them," said Milwellis.
Pinower wore a most curious expression. "Surely there is many times that number! I saw them from the wall."
"Mostly Ethelbert's men," Milwellis explained. "They will not enter the chapel courtyard until all of my men are fully attended. Every scratch." "Prince Milwellis, that is not the agreement of the church," Father Artolivan reminded, but the man from Palmaristown was hearing none of it. He stepped forward and rose up tall, towering over the old Artolivan and making him seem small indeed in that moment- a realization that did not sit well on poor, shaken Brother Pinower!
"Here is the new agreement, old Father," Milwellis calmly explained. "You are to immediately and fully tend to my men, the men who serve Laird Panlamaris, my father. The dogs that run to Ethelbert's whistle will wait."
"And if Ethelbert's general brings in the wounded and the prisoners next time, are we to follow a reversed edict from him?" Artolivan shrewdly asked.
"No general of Laird Ethelbert will reach Chapel Abelle, unless as a prisoner," Milwellis assured him. "You will do as I instruct." "And if we do not?"
The man smiled and lifted an eyebrow, a clear mea sure of threat in his posture. "That would not be wise."
"Nor would your stubborn and determined effort to drive the Order of Abelle from the side of Laird Delaval, which is surely the end result of your insistence," Father Artolivan replied with an evenness and strength in his voice that those around him had not heard in years, one that impressed and amazed Brother Pinower. "We have remained neutral, to the gain of both warring lairds and, more importantly, to the benefit of the people of Honce. If we are forced to break that neutral posture, I assure you that we will break against the laird applying that pressure. Rethink your position, Prince of Palmaristown, or I expect that Laird Delaval will come to blame Milwellis for the great loss of the brothers and their healing stones!"
The prince seemed almost to deflate at that, albeit slowly, as he gradually rolled back onto his heels. He kept his eyes narrow, though, and his teeth gritted, and he did not blink for many heartbeats.
"Brothers," Father Artolivan went on, "go through our gates and retrieve the wounded Ethelbert soldiers. Prepare the triage in the courtyard, as according to our agreements with both of the warring lairds. And when you do, be sure that there are no indications, on clothing or jewelry, of those poor unfortunates to determine allegiance to either laird. Those most wounded are to be tended first, regardless of allegiance, as is our way."
"These men are my prisoners!" Milwellis roared.
"And when you leave them here, they fall under the protection and responsibility of the Order of Abelle. As was agreed, Prince. Look around you at the nonclergy working on our walls and structures! Nine hundred and more have been sent here, and nearly half are men of Laird Delaval, captured by the forces of Ethelbert! Many came here wounded, many whole but as prisoners. They are out of the fight . . ." He paused as Milwellis whirled away and leaped back up onto his horse.
Without another word, the Prince of Palmaristown spun his mount around and galloped through the gate, his personal guard sweeping up in his wake.
"That one is trouble," one of the brothers remarked.
"It will come to this in the end, I fear," said Father Artolivan. "As the stalemate inevitably deepens and the common folk begin to grumble and stir in revolt, their families decimated by the continuing war, we will be forced into choosing a side."
"And how will we choose?" Brother Pinower dared ask.
Father Artolivan had no answer.
"They break and turn!" came a cry from the wall.
Artolivan led his entourage to the open gate, to look down upon the field, where indeed Prince Milwellis and the bulk of his forces had turned away.
"Abelle save us," Brother Pinower whispered as he sorted through it, for while one group of Palmaristown soldiers hustled the healthy Ethelbert prisoners toward Chapel Abelle, no doubt to hand them off and be rid of them, the main Palmaristown group led by Prince Milwellis took with them the wounded men loyal to their enemy, Laird Ethelbert! They were not going to allow the monks to heal those enemy wounded.
"The fool has just assured that there will never be peace in Honce, whether Ethelbert or Delaval proves victorious," Father Artolivan remarked.
"What will they do to them?" Brother Pinower dared to ask.
"Nothing," Father Artolivan said bitterly. "Prince Milwellis will simply let them die of their wounds."
Pinower looked over to another of the brothers, who merely shook his head and shrugged, and in that moment, Brother Pinower came to know the dark truth of Father Artolivan's prediction.