Wednesday 14 February 2007

A Thousand Swords

The Book of Alcus  

To Baron Alcura  
My Lord Father,  

I hope that you will not think me impertinent in writing this letter. I have been involved – at your instruction – for most of the past few years in a sequence of events which led ultimately to the investiture of our ally Hadraden as Prince of Matora. During these events it struck me how frequently the actions of myself and my colleagues were steered by the stories and anecdotes related to us by you and some of your former comrades in arms about your own adventures. In some cases, the stories you related had, in turn, been told to you by your own noble father about his own actions and these too were helpful to me.

I have developed a strong sense, father, that the role of our family in the lives of the late Princess Mictila and her descendants has not come to an end. I am conscious that my son Wodarn and my future children and grandchildren may not have the benefit of you or I recounting these stories at length. Therefore, in aid of those future members of our noble House, I am taking the liberty of setting out a record of the events in which we have been involved. (If nothing else, this account will serve to pass the days of a long sea voyage!).

Hemarl Alcura
Off the coast of Matora

I would welcome your considered views on the matters I will proceed to relate, and your corrections and eludicdations where appropriate.

The campaign for Matora was divided into two theatres by the Bay of Vinaria. Hadraden – accompanied by our group and Lecaha – fought on the western side of the Dominion, while Ertura led the fight in the east. Our landing from the island of Terakor onto the Matoran mainland was marked by the capture of a Shanaran ship which held a number of interesting passengers.

The Future
Now father, I am returning to Alcus, but only for a short time. My intention is – with your permission - to fit out a “trading mission” to Alfiok. The real purpose of my visit is, of course, to transcribe the Akherolian quatrain which I believe is set as a flagstone in the palace of the Highlord, and also to make discreet inquiries about the mysterious Javaran. Then I hope to treat with Tokan Liod to trade the Alfioki quatrain for one in his possession, and later to visit with Adrieste in Vinaria to collect a further quatrain known to her. After that, perhaps there will be time to spend time with my beloved Anim and my dear son Wodarn.

Into the future, I do not know where the service of the House Alcura will bring me. I have no doubt, though, that the fates of you and I and our descendants will continue to be entwined with those of the progeny of the third issue of the alignment of Mandrake and Stars.

Javaran of Alfiok

One was a man calling himself Javaran, claiming to be a former War Master of the Highlord of the Free City Alfiok. Javaran had been travelling to Vinaria to offer himself as a mercenary, having suffered a falling out with the Highlord regarding a personal matter. The man was clearly educated in the military arts and we secured Hadraden's consent to hire him to our ranks, albeit in a less lofty post than he had anticipated.

Javaran at all times served to the highest possible standards and did no act which have us reason to suspect his loyalty. However we have always treated him with circumspection. His arrival into our midst appeared too good to be true, as we had at that time an excellent body of fighting men but a shortage of competent captains to lead them. His arrival happened (as you will recall) shortly after we had sent a message to Tokan Liod with a view to opening talks aimed at ending the generations of conflict between him (on the one hand) and Alcus, Ertura and Mictila's line on the other. Given Tokan Liod's history of intrigue I thought it possible that Javaran might be a spy.

The only questionable issue which arose in relation to Javaran arose later in the campaign, when soldiers serving under him reported seeing him use arcane powers in a tower assault. According to the soldiers, he used these powers to burn an enemy soldier alive. On being questioned, Javaran disparaged the suggestion that he was a magus and said that the man in question had fallen into a fire. The soldiers' story was not sufficient to cast serious doubt on Javaran's account, and I have never heard any evidence that he is anything other than appropriately loyal to Hadraden. However I have continued to recommend vigilance to Hadraden. I hope to travel soon to Alfiok on other business and plan to take that opportunity to inquire into Javaran's history.

The Ankheran Envoy

An Ankheran knight called Hietan (from the Viscounty of Laetaras) was also a passenger on the captured ship. The ship's captain, Alberan, told us that Hietan had boarded in the port of Vanadiumar in the Duchy of Dumata and that he had paid the captain to bring the ship to a place off the coast of south-western Matora, where Hietan went aboard a Fontarbrian vessel also moored there.

As you will recall, Hietan told us very little, but was more forthcoming with yourself when we sent him to Alcus. He confirmed to you that he had handed a letter to the Fontarbrian Viscount Tursela. He also reported a belief in the Ankheran court that King Votlira of Ankheras had engineered the death of Hemarl Matora. This Votlira allegedly did by way of a letter which requested that Talzim, then the scion of the CoDratapnan line and now King of Fontrabria, secure the death of Hemarl. This was to be done in return for something previously agreed, though what that might have been we do not yet know.

Tokan Liod's Envoys

Shortly after we landed on the Matoran mainland, we were approached by two emissaries of Tokan Liod. The first was a Dyrian called Etrao, who may be the same emissary as previously spoke to my grandfather Wodarn, in which case he is likely to be a Talon. The second was Bilador, who admitted being the same Bilador as thwarted Wodarn, and thus is almost certainly a Talon. I outlined to them my own personal desire for a peaceful settlement, undertaking to use my good offices with you, Ertura and Hadraden to attempt to bring this about. We agreed to meet again at the end of the campaign season as near as possible to Vinaria to see whether these talks could be brought any further.

The Campaign

The first phase of the campaign involved the capture of a sequence of towns and towers in the southern part of the theatre. Our line of march followed a similar route to the one you followed in Hemarl's war, though the way was easier for us because the mercer houses and certain towns had secretly remained loyal to Hemarl and his line.

Our first major engagement was outside the city of Kasodael, in which Arnohil had been invested by a substantial Ankheran force. The enemy force was badly disposed and poorly organised and we overcome it.

Our next target was the larger city of Monperlo, whither we moved with dispatch. There we narrowly avoided disaster. Unknown to us, Monperlo was the site of a large Ankheran concentration which would have been far superior to our own. Having drawn a numerically superior Ankeran force out of the city to give us battle on ground we had chosen, we found out at the last minute that a second – still greater – force was marching toward our rear.

Heavily outnumbered, we retreated, and continued to retreat through territory only recently captured. The Ankheran army, 8,000 strong, was led by King Votlira himself, accompanied by his brother and Marshall, Varana. Our own force, numbering less than 3,000, was disposed to encourage the Ankherans to continue their pursuit, so that we might find appropriate ground on which a battle might be fought.

Ankheras Vanquished

We found such ground at the town of Monrosh, which was protected with sturdy walls and a strong river. Snaring a body of knights in an ambush, and positioning Javaran's companies in a series of amubushes, served to lure the Ankherans into a hasty assault through the hayfields which lay between them and the town. Pre-positioned Matoran incendiaries fired the fields, causing panic in the Ankheran ranks, which were then further depleted by heavy crossbow volleys. As the sun set, a rout began and we sallied toward a hill where Votlira had established himself with a bodyguard of 500 who remained steadfast.

Hadraden himself led that charge but the hero of that bloody night was Tanath Hemnerasun who battered through countless Ankheran armsmen, struck down the Ankheran standard and captured King Votlira himself.

In that fiery hour, the war was won. An enormous ransom was paid by the Ankherans to our allied forces, and Hadraden and his line were confirmed as sovereign Princes of Matora, albeit that Matora would remained within the Kingdom of Ankheras. Votlira also swore never to treat with the King of Fontarbria. In due course, our group returned to Vinaria in advance of Hadraden, to prepare the city for his coming triumph.

The Triumph of Hadraden

The Triumph of Hadraden will never be forgotten by any who witnessed it. It was far more than a procession; it was an ecstatic religious experience shared by thousands. Giving obeisance to Korak in an obscure form, Hadraden had painted his face pitch black from eyebrows to mouth. His beard and hair were bleached white. He rode a horse and carried an axe and a knife. Behind him marched his massed army, led by the proud-stepping veterans, Hemarl's Thousand, who had marched the long, long leagues of Fontarbria to join this war. Proudly, the banner of Alcura fluttered too amongst the victorious ranks as our group took its rightful place of honour in the procession.

As Hadraden marched, the crowd underwent a kind of hysteria unrelated to any modest joy they would have felt at Hadraden's victory. For all that many would have remained loyal to Hemarl, Hadraden was a foreigner to them, an Otgaidarese prince who had never before set foot in the ancient city of Vinaria. One expected a certain joy at the ending of a war and the return of a popular royal line, but what occurred was several orders of magnitude greater than any normal level of festivity. This ecstasy was not experienced by those who marched; only by those who watched.

Knowledgeable experts whom we later consulted suggested that the triumphal procession had become a collective manifestation of Korak himself, and that the onlookers' reactions were those of people enraptured by the direct presence of a god. Having seen the people myself, I find that hypothesis convincing. Certainly something extraordinary occurred. The explanation was accompanied by ominous words too: we were warned that, when gods take a direct interest in people, the end result is seldom happy for those people.

Things Learned in Vinaria

During our stay in Vinaria, we were approached – as previously arranged – by Etrao and Bilador, emissaries of Tokan Liod. Since our last meeting, I had made various representations to yourself, Ertura and Hadraden concerning the possible establishment of a peace between you three and Tokan Liod, and all three were agreeable to it. Long years of war had profited us little, cost us much, and had only slowed Tokan Liod's inevitable victory in Tibulanus. The principles of a lasting peace, including the opening of trade, were agreed at that point.

A curious altercation at that point led to several useful discoveries. Our group had made the acquaintance of one Adriesta, the Dean of History in University of Vinaria, in the course of inquiries about the events at the Triumph. We invited the lady and her attendant, a Kalmarese called Vol, to dinner. Thinking to make an evening of it, we also invited Etrao and Bilador, not telling either duo about the expected presence of the other. When Tokan Liod's men set eyes on Adrieste and Vol, all four reached for weapons. A stand-off ensued, which only ended when Etrao and Bilador departed with apologies.

It transpired that Adrieste is a magus of the same order as Tokan Liod. Clearly, relations between the members of this order are not entirely cordial, though both sides later insisted that there is no actual hostility between them. Each said they were merely surprised by and suspicious of the unannounced presence of the other.

This led us to a discussion about the 24 quatrains of Akharol, which are the subject of inquiries by the members of Adrieste and Tokan Liod's order. It transpired that these quatrains were dispersed long ago throughout the world. Some are readily accessible (for example those we had previously unearthed in Karia and Vinaria). Some are accessible to those with sufficient resources and dedication to retrieve them, such as one, known to us but not until then to Adrieste, in Alfiok.

Some of the quatrains appear to be lost or inaccessible. These include those hidden in the great northern continent about which Adrieste informed us, a continent inhabited by the Ygril, the third major surviving demon race.

We have a great interest in these quatrains, believing that at least one of them refers to Hemarl Matora. For that reason, we came to an agreement with Adrieste. We said that we would recover the prophecy in Alfiok in return for her giving us the details of two quatrains in her possession but not ours. She agreed, with the proviso that we must not only produce to her the text of the prophecy, but also its number, which is carved on the side of the prophecy stone. We resolved to travel to Alfiok at a later time to conclude this matter.

Hadraden Summoned to Karia

In the meantime, we had a more pressing concern. King Votlira had summoned Hadraden to Karia to swear fealty of him. Given the terms of the Treaty of Monrosh, this was a very difficult summons to decline, as Hadraden was still to owe fealty to Votlira. However there was a significant chance that Votlira would simply murder Hadraden and reassert his brother's claim over Matora. Despite the danger, Hadraden decided to obey.

Curiously, Tokan Liod's envoys requested that they be given several months notice of any visit by Hadraden to Karia. They suggested that they could be of assistance to him if given such notice. After some discussion, we decided to tell the envoys of Hadraden's expected date of arrival – the midsummer festival. They advised us that, if things went badly, we should make for “the White Corvette” at the docks in Karia, which is an inn.

It would not have been wise for me, an avowed enemy of Ankheras, to travel openly to Karia with Hadraden. However our group greatly desired to go there, not only to help protect Hadraden but also to finish the job which our grandfathers' had left unfinished – the destruction of the demon previously imprisoned in the dungeons of Karia's royal palace. With that task in mind, we requested the loan from the Temple of Javarus in Ertures of the ancient sword, forged for demon-slaying and left there by Soros. The sword reached us in time for our departure.

In keeping with plans agreed with Hadraden, I staged a display of anger in Vinaria, pretending to disagree with the new Prince's decision to travel to Karia. I made a large sacrifice at the Temple of Vilcanat, asking that if anything should happen to Hadraden in Ankheras, that vengeance should be visited on Votlira himself (this sacrifice and attendant request was not feigned!). I then boarded a ship bound for Alcus, but left that ship in disguise and rejoined Hadraden as a humble clerk in his entourage, which also included my friends.

Hadraden's army was massed on the Ankheran border, ready to strike should Hadraden need help. He himself travelled with only 100 men at arms.

Revelation in Karia – the Evil of the Arok

There was no obvious sign of evil intent in Karia. We settled in our accommodations and began to make certain discreet inquiries in the days leading up to the midsummer feast.

One of our first visits was to Raliol, the magus who had requested that our grandfathers' slay the demon. He was more forthcoming about the nature of the creature at this point. He explained that it was not a true demon, but a thing called an Arok. Aroks are humans with powers equivalent to saints, but they do not follow any god. Instead, they serve the Seventh, a power of the nature of the gods but implacably opposed to them. The Seventh, operating in secret, schemes to supplant the gods and destroy the demons in its own name.

The power of the Arok lies in the control of mens' minds, whether through subtle persuasion or brutal supernatural domination. It is ageless and feeds, not as normal men do, but rather through the diabolic means of sucking the life-force from normal mortals. It is immune to the magic of humans and demons – void and moon, as Raliol said it – and can only be killed by ordinary humans. We reckoned that the creature would by now be enormously powerful, both in its supernatural abilities and in the political influence it would have.

Raliol described the motivation of the Arok to be to cause discord between people and countries, and in that respect we saw many possible hints of its influence in Karia over the years.

We also learned that the way in which the late Princess Mictila and members of her family died in Karia was consistent with the way an Arok would drain the life from a normal human over a long period. This led us to conclude that the Arok killed Mictila, though whether this was done purely to satisfy its evil thirst, or was also intended to provoke conflict with Hemarl and his line, is unclear.

Investigations in Karia

We set about investigating figures in Votlira's court whose behaviour was consistent with being that of the Arok. We looked for shadowy figures with influence but not great public profile who would, at the time of Mictila's death, have had access to the royal palace.

As part of our researches, we enlisted the help of the local bishop of Biladon, Guardian of Heaven. Though he had never heard of the Seventh or an Arok, he believed that his particular gifts would allow him to identify one if he set eyes on it.

We also consulted the Bishops of Korak and Mantniaras, ostensibly to get their help (though there was little practical help they could offer) but more importantly to prepare the ground for the event which would take place. In the event that we discovered the Arok in Votlira's court, and were required to kill it, we wished to have a story already disseminated which might limit the extent of Votlira's retribution.

The last bishop we spoke to was the Bishop of Belgris. The current Bishop is known to be close to Votlira and his intercession might well have been of great benefit to us. We first asked him to perform the relatively innocuous task of assisting Hadraden to contact his deceased great-grandmother, Mictila. We did this in the hope that Mictila could shed light on the existence and identity of the Arok – and help convince the bishop in the process.

The Bishop failed to make a connection with Mictila and, though the length of time and remoteness of the relationship might have been factors in the failure, he clearly felt that something more sinister was thwarting his efforts. Therefore we told him about the presence of the Arok and of our plans to kill it. He was very concerned at the news but broadly supportive of our intention.

We also in this period made inquiries about the presence of the Harlequin in Karia several decades ago, which I have referred to previously.


While in Karia, we came across several of the Kartagi mercenaries last seen during the siege of Qan Saloso. They were led by Haakesh, he of the curve-handled knife. In discussions, he admitted that the knife was the badge of office of the Kartagi King's Assassin. The term used (“King’s Assassin”) was explained as deriving from the fact that the holders of the office are beholden to his service as the King of the City of Kartaga and not as the Emperor of Kartagakeen.

Haakesh had previously held that office, but had fallen from favour with the God-Emperor and had fled. He explained to us some of the theology of that bizarre country. It holds that when Shalebrol has ceased to be a divine servitor, and has been replaced by the magus who is now god-Emperor of Kartagakeen. Furthermore, the God Emperor does not suffer any other magus to live within his empire, mistrusting their loyalty.

We explained to Haakesh our dilemma with the Arok. He was aware of the nature of the Seventh. He volunteered to assassinate the creature, for an enormous fee. We said we would consider that option, without making any commitment. In the meantime we retained the Kartagi mercenaries on Hadraden's behalf. At that point, we feared that we would not be fast enough to find the Arok, and that it might try to have Hadraden killed at the fealty ceremony. Every available sword might (at that point) be of great value to us.

That situation did not come to pass. With the help of the Bishop of Biladon, after ruling some other suspects out of consideration, we identified the Arok as one Garryl, a courtier often used by the king as a messenger and envoy. Luring this Garryl to a meeting – ostensibly to conduct intrigue between Alcura and Ankheras – we attacked him. Evidence that this Garryl was indeed the Arok was incontrovertible - not only did the Bishop indicate that this was so, but the Arok also possessed Tanath and made him attempt to kill Gunnar.

I was not present at the assassination, but I know it was bloody indeed. By the end of it, the Arok Garryl had been killed, but so had Hietan Hemalberan, most loyal knight of Alcura, and Garryl hem Garryl, that most ingenious merchant, pirate and spy. Their loss weighs heavily on me, they who had soldiered alongside me for many thousands of miles.

After the fight, we brought the bodies of those killed to the Temple of Belgris. The Bishop of Biladon had been our herald, and confirmed that the courtier we killed had been an enemy pf the Gods. The Bishop of Belgris brought the news to the King, whom he later reported to be angry at how he had been manipulated by the Arok, but who accepted our story. Thus the killing of the Arok was achieved without causing danger for Hadraden. Nevertheless, fearing for our own safety, we stole from the city with the help of Tokan Liod's men at the White Corvette. We paused only to ensure the return the ancient sword to the Temple of Javarus.

We returned safely to Vinaria, as eventually did Hadraden, whose fealty ceremony had passed went without incident.

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