The Wars to come

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

John Milton‘s Paradise Lost

I wasn’t always the flayed and cynical man, the restless wraith impatiently awaiting a painful Death as a deluded mercy. Like every squire in the Temerian Westernlands, I have dreamt of knighthood, of glory and, sadly enough, of fame. Like every highborne hero, I have loved women, saved my load of princesses, defeated honorable warriors, slain villains and seized glory, leaving a long trail of vanquished in my wake.

My worst regret is when I have forsaken my palpable future out of selfish recklessness. My greatest accomplishment is the well-deserved blood I have shed in my long career. Everyone is guilty of something, and everyone is entitled to redemption. And everyone dies.

Everyone but me. I am Dantena van Torquaz.

You may sympathize with me – for what it will bring to both of us… Not caring would have been a lie when I was mortal. I don’t seek pity, and I don’t really know if my memories matter. However, I feel like sharing this part of my past.

That day, the 24th of the 10th Month of 1454, I was a young boy. A squire to Otto the Fearless, the last forsaken king of Temeros, gifted with extraordinary agility and with an able mind, beloved by my friends, and always followed by Crook, a stray wolfdog with silver fir.

It was the time when I followed my friend, Crowned Prince Conrad von Fulgam, to attend the first trial-by-combat I have ever seen. The last great duel of the Second Age, opposing a warrior king to a swordsman virtuosi.

It was the day I have decided to dedicate my life to the sword.

As an attendant to one of the duelists, I had the best angle available. Shining, the sun lowered its brace upon the wooden arena built-in the Freidmark Fields, in the Temerian eastern border. It had been the perfect day for a fight to the death, where a gentle breeze refreshed the spectators – all legendary swordsmen whose name rhyme with indigests treaties rather than their proven exploits. Kings, queens, dukes and greatlords – smallfolk, beggars and chroniclers – on both sides of the field watched – stunned in an unbearable silence.

Majestic as I recall, the Holy Illyrian Emperor and King of the Crownlands, Thorgrim von Agryn himself, stood on the highest seat, gazing down at the two fighters. A large man who commanded respect with his sternness and his vigor, Emperor Thorgrim held the pommel of his warhammer he rested below his armrest, the sun shining behind him – a judge of heroes. At the emperor’ right side, stood his Grace, Saint Rohan – the man who disguised as a jester earlier today – bearing a smile on his face, the one of a man who took nothing seriously. Casually dressed as a lowborn with a page’s white tunic covered by a leather sleeveless armour, Rohan didn’t fit any caste I knew of. Agitated like a child, he couldn’t stay in place, and I precisely recall the emperor staring at his bodyguard with annoyance on the wooden platform, trying to tell him to stay steady. But to no avail. Joyfully, Saint Rohan carried an insolent confidence, passing a hand in his spiky brown hair and shaking his head just if he searched for bugs in them. All looked at him if he were insane, but even as a squire I knew better. Pure evil, I had thought.

Learning from their relationship, I have asked myself how could a silly lowborn allow himself to disobey to the Holy Illyrian emperor. Today, I’ve learned better. Two years later, Rohan had proposed a motion to the Hemicycle of Kings: he had personally designed what would become the Keshian Wars. When a paranoid Thorgrim had opposed his project in 1455, Rohan would let his monarch die under the butcher’s knife of the Kingslayer and hide in the shadows for another decade. After twenty of civil war, the Empire stabilized with the rise of Arius the Usurper… now knows as His Imperial Majesty Arius the Great. Disgraced for he lost, Thorgrim the Conqueror is branded Thorgrim the Unfortunate. Wars had been won, others had been lost. Hundreds of thousands had died, adding to the mountain of corpses which carried the weight of kings. And, out of all of the legends attending the trial-by-combat, only the insolent Saint Rohan remained, parading as a jester in tourneys, laughing at the world.

I remember when the Emperor’s Wit had lowered his gaze upon me through the massive assistance. Believing it to be a coincidence, Saint Rohan had winked at me, before he sniffing the emperor’s hair and taking the opportunity to whisper at his ear. I still see the emperor’s resigned expression turning into a saddened nod. The jester commands the Emperor, I guessed. A jester is allowed to insult monarchs, with impunity.

Honestly, it didn’t bother me as much that bright and windy day.

Fairly enough, Emperor Thorgrim ruled over a foreign nation, an imperial order who tried to mirror the Old Empire, pitifully attempting to rival us, the Temerians of the Westernlands. None amongst the Westerlings really bothered to notice Rohan’s arrogant demeanour but I. Even Conrad  showed less interest for this foreign leaders than for the bare-chested man, kneeling in front of their pavilion. He’s the swordsman they chose to fight our king, who is he?

Two swords covered by grey scabbards hanged at his ragged pants – ample enough to certainly allow flexible moves. Two swords? Who fights without a shield, this is nonsense, I had foolishly believed back then. The beggar swordsman’s sandals and his long shaggy hair insulted our king. Who came to a trial-by-combat bare-chested, without wearing the sigil of his lord? If the Illyrians think of this diplomatic duel as a jest, they will e sourly grieving once His Grace slays this beggar. Hestavian isn’t a free city anymore. By dusk, the city of cannons is Temerian dominion.  The war – now considered the first schism of the Great Orders and the trigger of everything that was to come – was fought over the disputed territories of Hestavian and Ashenguard, a coalition of ancient baronies which offered geographical advantages – such as the prized access to the Wild North. After years of muddy and gritty warfare, King Otto, finest warrior of the West and grandmaster of the Prime Knights, had gracefully agreed to face the Empire’s best fighter in an one-on-one combat. Foolishly again, I have thought Temeros would be sparing his lesser eastern counterpart on a whim. The two champions would clash in a storm of swords, and one would bring victory to his nation with the head of the vanquished. Discovering the Empire’s champion appearance hadn’t amused the Temerians. We had heard of that man’s reputation, commendable but paling in comparison of our king’s. We thought of his apparel as a mockery to our culture. No one doubted of King Otto’s triumph, we all doubted of the Imperials’ intentions. A fist in the grass, the beggar was still kneeling, eyes lowered, awaiting for the emperor’s blessings. Folly, this is folly, I had wanted to say, knowing better than infuriating my short-tempered master.

His Grace Otto, King of Temeros and claimant over the free city of Hestavian and the Ivory throne of Ashtown, carefully removed his golden crown – infested with rubies -, resting it on a stool – cling! The rubies echoed in the silence – before waving at me. Catching his gloved hand asking for my assistance, I carried both his sword and shield. Rushing at his side, I offered to my king his longsword, the one they named Reckoning, whose white blade had always reminded me of the paleness of bones.

Passing his arm through the leather strips of his shield, King Otto then drew the bony blade, describing one of the most impressive and fluid flowers a knight has ever performed in front of my eyes. It must certainly have been a heavy sword, but it mattered not to our king, who used it as easily as a dinning knife. Clashing the blade upon the Pegasus’ sigil on his shield, the King roared and led by his son, Crowned Prince Conrad – a handsome youth with midshort raven hair and a prideful smile – the entire Temerian court screamed: “King of the West!”

My heart had raced. Seeing Conrad acting for the first time in a kingly manner, followed by our folk’s clamour, made me designed my motto: We are the heroes of our time. I sat next to him, and admired his composure in front of the insanity going on in front of us. What am I doing here, I don’t belong with all these knights, and yet, I feel right where I should be. The screams and acclamations galvanised my own self, and I joined the fray:

“King of the West! Defend the Nest! The Nest of the Hawk! House of the Pegasus! King of the West!”

All sound vanished, the drums thundered upon the Freidmark Fields, for our king would put his life on the line for what we believed in.

In the midst of the chaos, Emperor Thorgrim stood, warhammer in hand. Rising in the air, he yelled the following words:

“People of a Hundred Realms, we gather here for justice, let God’s eternal flame shine upon thee, Ithildir Merethil, grandmaster of the Prime Knights and First Sword of the Known World!”

Insult! I had thought, but none of our knights replied to this absurdity. How could there be two grandmasters of one same knightly order? How could they call our king a usurper? Conrad, who noticed my fury, whispered to me:

“My lord father has been branded oathbraker by the Holy See, so their champion is legally grandmaster. A nonsense I know, but unless Father proves his legitimacy by the sword he will never be fully recognized as Grandmaster of the Prime Knights.”

Angrily nodding, I answered:

“Lets behold our king take what is his, by right of conquest!”

Conrad smiled, saying with a contained excitement:

“A golden age awaits Temeros, with the Hestavians’ runic cannons, we will avenge our people from our enemies, northerners and islanders shall pile up under our banner.”

Then, the Imperial’s swordsman – the one known as Ithildir von Merethil – stood up, in the most absurd grace I have ever seen. Ithildir Merethil calmly walked towards King Otto. With an incredibly controlled voice, he said, courteous despite his imminent death:

“Your Grace”.

Staring with impatience, King Otto replied with annoyance:

“I looked for you on that bridge.

– I wasn’t there. Be  grateful, otherwise you’d be already resting beneath the ground.

– Your war is over, I offer you one last chance to reconsider. Strike your banner, and kneel before me, and all is forgiven. You can keep your Prime Knights for what I care.

– This is why I shall fight you. You don’t deserve to lead a Knightly Order.

– You fool”, King Otto spat on the ground. “I shall still grant you a funeral, old friend.

– I wish you good fortune in the wars to come”, Ithildir said, and in the blink of a second, his two swords were drawn, having both finished a full circle in the air. “It begins.”

Blocking with grace, King Otto deflected a double jab, before sweeping, keeping Ithildir at distance and almost catching his throat. Surprised, the king covered himself with his shield, like if he were expecting a vicious strike, as he lashed forward jabbing before stepping on the right to strike from above. However, Ithildir had fast reflexes, and his double swords gave him plenty of manoeuver to block. As soon the king’s step reached the ground that Ithildir followed his opponent, performing a circle with his right sword that the king barely blocked, before the left blade threatened his helm. Rising his arm, the clash of swords echoed and made the Westernlings shiver.

It came close, I recall.

Locked in a stalemate, both duelists retracted. Ithildir changed his stance, carrying his right sword backwards. What is this man? Free of his movements, the imperial champion charged, the king’ shield already to receive him, his right hand performing a fast flower, preparing to slice. However, Ithildir didn’t interrupt his assault, and the king positioned his feet to deliver his strike. Unimpressed, Ithildir’s footwork happened so fast that his right sword blocked Reckoning, while his left – and strong side – struck the king in the rib.

Retreating, King Otto stumbled in his golden armour, morally challenged. To my shock, the man I believed the strongest in the Known World barely succeeded in attacking five times, spilled blood below his helm, his longsword struck in the ground. Heavily breathing, Otto’s armour ended up a handicap. Ithildir calmly switched stances in front of him, reversing his right sword into its original position. Performing his double circles, Ithildir revealed that day that he could strike at eight different points at once, as blood ran upon the gold of our king’s armour.

Suddenly, Conrad, strong like I never saw him again, screamed:

“Father, compose yourself!”

Regaining confidence, King Otto dropped his shield, wielding Reckoning with two hands, in his Falcon stance, pommel above the head.

“To your left,’ Conrad yelled.

Swinging his blade, Ithildir’s eyes expressed astonishment when Otto allowed himself to be attacked to swing down – even faster than him. Dodging with supreme speed, Ithildir barely escaped beheading that he already struck.

“Father, to your right!”

For the first time, I witnessed King Otto the Fearless listening to his son. Despite their mutual hatred, their love for their kingdom united them in this duel of fates. Father and son fought side by side. Even if technically outmaneuvered, Otto the Fearless seemed unstoppable, driven by the Fulgam rage.

Swords clashed, and finally, an opening that I too noticed, one that would have ended the war, happened. Conrad opened the mouth, but suddenly, a flash of light appeared in his mouth, and gagged him, preventing him to warn the king.

Instinctively, I looked up to the Emperor’s platform, and I still see Rohan smiling, his fingers shining under the sunlight. Sorcery? When the flash of light vanished from Conrad’s mouth, he wasn’t the rising Crowned Prince, he was the tearful King of Temeros.

Stabbed in the armpit, Otto von Fulgam fell to his knees, holding his adversary’s right pommel – the blade emerging from the other side of his shoulder. Almighty, Ithildir von Merethil stood, his left sword in his hand. All heard him say:

“You have redeemed yourself, King Otto. Finally rest, as now it ends.”

A smile grew on the dying monarch’s pale face, his eyes closed as the sword stabbed his heart. Falling to the ground, late King Otto, once so energetic, laid motionless.

A silence invaded the Freidmark Fields, the silence of a succession. Closed fists, Conrad tried to contain his tears, staring at his father’s corpse. That was the last time I’ve felt sorry for him.

Suddenly, whispers rose, until Ithildir seized the Sword of Reckoning, white as ever – Otto failed to even spill his enemy’s blood. Marching towards Conrad, the kingsguard was even slower than I, who stood between my new king and the kingslayer. Ithildir looked down upon me – but there wasn’t any disdain. I read in his cold and golden eyes compassion. I froze as Ithildir walked past me. Pegasus Knights formed a line between Ithildir and Conrad, hands on the pommel. Conrad stood there, petrified. For a reason beyond the fate of nations, no one dared to approach Ithildir. Is this… true power? 

Ignoring the guards, Ithildir kneeled in front of the line, addressing Conrad directly, offering him his father’ sword.

“The king is dead, long live the king.”

Even if years had failed to heal Conrad’s heart, I can still see the man who is, to this day, considered the deadliest swordsman the Known World has even seen, performing something long-lost: honor. Accepting the sword in his King’ stead, ser Mhort, Lord Captain of the Pegasus Guard, thanked Ithildir, who respectfully rose.

As he went back to enjoy his triumph on the other side of the field, he said at my reach, only mine:

“You reacted quickly, it is good. You Westerlings may have lost now, but it doesn’t mean it is over just yet. No matter what era, war is the only constant. Rise again Westerlings, for you proud folk and your young king are the new hope of Temeros”.

Leaving in the clamor of the Imperial triumph, I looked back at Ithildir Merethil, the God of the Sword, most honorable man of all time. Following his path, I noticed Saint Rohan smiling at me, again. He winked, as he open his hand, revealing a flash of light in his hand, that he closed into a fist, leaving particles vanishing into the air.

That day I made two vows: surpassing Ithildir Merethil, and never becoming like Saint Rohan.

I have failed at both.

This is why I strive as a Watcher, for clashing with outlaws and slayers gives me the Thrill that makes a warrior alive. This is why, witch, that I want you to translate the Sinistros’ note for me.

I have a slayer to destroy!

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