We entered an overlook along the edge of the parapet onto the rampart. Stone and tile rooftops spread out below us on multiple levels. Verdant treetops made the distant land’s horizon green under a gray clouded sky. Moss and lichen grew in patches, here and there between the grooves of slate, stone and red terracotta tiles aged and discolored by the heat of the sun and the frosts of the winters.
Just behind the opened door to our right, stood a formidable looking man, armored and accompanied by three other fighting men staggered just behind in a small diagonal phalanx formation. Their swords were drawn, and they appeared tense. The slightest wrong move and this could go very badly for us. Maeven emerged and stood before the armored leader of this escort.
“Stand down, Morgrath. These are not our enemies.”
The one called Morgrath, apparently a warrior of some rank among the Azragothians, looked from us back to Maeven before answering.
“That remains to be seen. They are to be brought before the council. Their fate will be decided there.”
With that, the other warriors moved to the solid wall, indicating that we should pass them, near the open railing overlooking the stone courtyards far below. We did as we were bidden to do, and Maeven, pursed her lips heroically keeping herself from saying something scathing to the man, and led us past the naked steel blades of the warriors to a small stone passageway that continued on along the rampart allure. The warriors closed in behind us as soon as the last of our party had exited the stairwell down to the sally port. The heavily studded iron-plated door was once again bolted shut.
For better or for worse we were in Azragoth now, and relying heavily upon Maeven to make our intentions clear before a council who were predisposed to be suspicious of us for mysterious reasons of their own.
Azragoth was what is known as a fortified city or citadel, which should not be mistaken as being the same as a mere castle which houses a royal residence. There were elements that were similar, and from what I can remember, it had a central keep, watchtowers, battlements, a few baileys, which were essentially open courtyards, both broad and narrow cobblestone streets branching and sloping upward in circular arcs connecting the baileys and terraced homes built of various materials, some of which had thick thatched roofs, some slate, and others of the more affluent merchants occupied homes with much more solid construction with terracotta barrel tile, as I mentioned before. From the curtain wall to the inner main wall was a cleared area known simply as the killing field. Its purpose was a place to repel an external attack should the outer curtain wall ever be breached. A space of land in which the inner archers and others, would rain down arrows and hot coals and ash, or vats of boiling oil, to pierce, burn or scald the successful attackers from attempting a further breach of the inner walls. Since Azragoth sat at the base of granite cliffs upon a forested shelf just below the foot of the highland descent into the valley below, it was not easily approached from its heavily wooded back but was more easily accessed by the front slopes from which the Xarmnian army had attacked. Azragoth was once a wealthy prize to be won indeed, which was why Xarmni ruling houses so coveted its takeover. At the head of the highlands, it was accessible from the main road by a relatively short distance, and from it, highland merchants would supply the trade routes passing near, before they began their trek into the lower valley and from there through the lake country to the foothills of the mountains beyond. More than fifty major rivers flowed from the highlands to the lower basins of the valley and formed large reservoirs of water that were perhaps larger than any of the smaller bodies of water commonly thought of as “lakes” in the Surface World. Azragothians benefited from their proximity to both trade routes and rivers, and such was their confidence back in those days of the certainty of their fortunate and happy placement, that they rarely closed their gates to anyone. The defenses of the city, they believed, were sound and they assumed that they would recognize when and if there arose a time in which they would need to close the gates of the Barbican against such a threat. So confident had they become, that when the Xarmnian army showed up in the far fields, just below the city’s walls, the people of Azragoth took no notice of the amassed army there setting up war machines and digging trenches. They had seen military exercises before. Militia used the plain because it was one of the few leveled-out open areas on the trek from the lower valley basin to the highlands where they could rest their troops and bivouac them before continuing their marched climb up the graded road.
When the threatening party rode up to Azragoth, they found the town wide-open. The gates were tied back and almost rusted open, from having been rarely closed. That is also why the Azragothians did not know they were under attack until the soldiers rode brazenly into the marketplace and began violently overturning vendor carts.
From the walls downward, we could see overgrown courtyards and open ward areas choked with weeds, vines, and broken stone. The place looked like it had been left derelict and no human foot had walked its paths in years. Yet something moved among the grasses. It moved casually in an unhurried manner taking its time to be revealed. I lingered momentarily to see what might emerge from the grass but felt the chill of cold steel on my exposed arm. The soldier bearing the blade reminded me that this was not a walk down memory lane. We were being led to a waiting council who would decide our occupancy here within the walls of Azragoth.
I raised my eyes from the lower ward to see a goat emerge from the broken doorway of one of the abandoned houses and chew casually on the badly gnawed frame of the doorway. It bleated plaintively and then continued chewing. Grey, rotted shutters hung askance from windows that had been shattered. A faded placard hung above the doorway creaking and swaying under rusty chains. The man with the sword cleared his throat, and I found that the blade had progressed from my arm to just below my chin. Message received. I moved onward.
We descended more steps and passed under an archway, to another wall that bore a double door, with blackened wood saturated with some oily sticky substance. The ground below our feet was hard packed, but smooth stone, and perhaps had seen more foot traffic than the other areas we had passed over. From the street level, it seemed as if a thousand pairs of eyes watched us from the shadowy recesses of the darkened rooms and abandoned apartments. Morgrath bore a key to the door that blocked our path, and pushed forward into our group, inserted it and turned the mechanism until it clacked with the sound of metal gears releasing bolts. The gated door swung inward from its solid post and lintel frame. We were not prepared for what lay on the other side.
It was as if the one part of the city had been left to the ravages of time and this inner court still bustled with life and activity like it occupied a separate time and reality all its own.
Two sentries stepped from either side of the doorway, wicked looking curved blades jutted from the ends of the halberds they bore reminding us, lest we forget, that our welcome here was not yet settled.
Beyond the guards was a flourishing and lively medieval town, active and thriving. Children danced and laughed in mock swordplay, bearing crude wooden representations of the real things drawn and pointed at our backs. The irony was so thick….well, I won’t say it. I could not imagine what the others were feeling, but my sense of regret at surrendering our weapons was beginning to claw at my gut, as being colossally naïve, in spite of everything we had endured thus far. The term “friend” was becoming murkier with each step further into this place of strange dichotomies.
The place was indeed haunted. The death of one side residing parallel and unseen along the living and vibrant side of the other. A central well stood in the courtyard, no doubt fed by the underground stream far below the city. Water would be crucial to the survival of a walled city. Especially one besieged and with good reason to conceal its persistent struggle to survive surrounded by lands and peoples who believed them to be long dead.
We were led further into the ward yard, and people began to pause from their activity and watch us as we were escorted into the very pumping heart of the city. The tall façade of a grand hall with ornately engraved broad oak doors no less than sixteen feet high awaited us from across the courtyard. Armored sentries attending the doors stood resolutely guarding entrance with wickedly curve-bladed halberds. They moved in mirrored unison to stand in front of the doors as the one called Morgrath approached.
I overheard him say, “Tell Corimanth that we’ve arrived.”
The sentry so addressed with the charge, pivoted into the doorway, having barely opened it to allow his own frame to fit through.
Moments later, the broad doors were opened, and we were led inside a tall banquet hall with high beamed ceilings and broad candlelit chandeliers on round wheels suspended by a rope, pulley, and winch system from the high ceiling approximately twenty-five feet overhead. The hall was lit with sconces from the support columns, added to the four sets of chandeliers burning with three tiers of concentric flaming wheels. Suddenly something registered in my memory.
“Wheels within wheels,” I muttered, gazing upward, then realized we were being beckoned forward.
Maeven took the foreground and spoke to what I understood to be the interim chieftain of the town of Azragoth while the one they called “The Eagle” was away.
Begglar sighed heavily and stood next to me, “This is not good.”
Nell, looking up, saw who it was that would be receiving us, and suddenly her ire came up, and Begglar had to move fast to restrain her. “Corimanth!” she exclaimed, “Saints preserve us! What are you doing in Azragoth!? How is it that you are sitting there, sending these men to fetch us like we were common thieves, and giving yourself the air of a high and mighty! Whatever is it that you think you’re a-doin’?”
The one called Corimanth, speaking in low tones to Maeven, before taking direct notice of our company looked startled.
“Nellus?” he flushed visibly, then reddened, “Is that you?”
Corimanth was a corpulent follow, with a bulbous nose, jowly cheeks and a shock of red hair about a balding head. He wore a leather corset to make himself appear thinner than he was, but it could not hide his heft, without constricting his ability to breathe, so that his words tended to come out of him in a sort of breathy huff.
“Are you sayin’ you don’t recognize your own sister, now?!” she stood, hands fisted at her hips, “Or is it that you’re ashamed to look at me now after I publicly boxed your ears when last I laid eyes on ye?!”
Corimanth’s face went from reddening to ashen once more, as he fluttered his hands to somehow beg her to keep her voice down. Nell was having none of it, and it was now apparent that Corimanth had caused her some sort of vexation in the past that had caused them to part ways and had strained the family ties between them.
“Nellus, would you please calm down,” Corimanth spoke in a more measured and controlled tone, “All will be explained to you. I just need you to hear me out.”
Nell, folded her arms, but it was evident that it took some doing to hold her temper, and hurt.
Maeven came to Nell’s side and put her arm around her, to give her strength and comfort. She knew what Corimanth was about to say would come as a shock to her in particular.
The banquet hall was lined with long oak tables, benches, and chairs. In better times past, it was a place of great feasting and city-wide celebration.
“Perhaps it would be better if we all sat down,” Corimanth said as more attendants and persons not in armed roles moved towards them from the recessed aisles along the nave. Corimanth and his attendants directed us to the tables.
Once seated, Corimanth adjusted the outer broadcloth cloak he wore on his shoulder and offered his outstretched hands to Nell. When she did not take them he quietly eased them to his side and began.
“I owe you a sincere and humble apology, my dear sister. You have every right not to trust or forgive me for what I have seemed to have done to you and our family. But perhaps if you will hear me out, you will, in the end, think better of me, and know why I had to do it. I have both looked forward to and dreaded this day at the same time. It was terrible the way we parted, but so very important that it be done.”
Here he took a breath, the corset seeming more restrictive and tightening than before, such that he took in several short breaths as well wincing in a slight grimace with each.
“Many years ago, before you met Begglar,” and turning to us, he addressed our gathering as a whole, “and before the terrible days following the decline and plagues of Azragoth, my sister and I lived in a small town just south of here called Sorrows Gate. It wasn’t always called that, though it is a very fitting name for what it has become. Sorrows Gate was once, very long ago, before the Xarmnian invasion, called Surrogate. It was a town that stood directly in the gap between two stone ridges before descending into the lower valley and the lake country. Azragoth was always the fortified city on the hill and a place where all of the smaller townsfolk knew they could flee to, should ever trouble come to ours and the other villages. Azragoth was the guardian town. Ours was more common and rural, but an important township in our own right. Nellus and I used to travel with our parents to Azragoth in more pleasant times to see the delights of the city and to trade and buy and sell in the marketplace here. Our peoples are from a much older group of travelers who came to these lands long before the families that broke apart and became what is now the Xarmnians and the Capitalians. There are subdivisions of those groups which have their own people, but by and large, it is a division of philosophical orders rather than ethnic or racial divide. Twelve brothers, each heads of their families, patriarchs, with one family split between two sons, half-tribes they were called. Be that as it may, our families and towns were friendly and receptive to those travelers when they first passed through and many years afterward when those groups made annual pilgrimages up from the valley to the Ancient Marker. We bought and traded with them, and they with us. Some of our families intermarried with them, and jointly we assumed we would one day become one people. But it was not to be.”
A flagon was brought to the table and a poured glass set before Corimanth and he took it and drank briefly before continuing. Quietly and without a word, the attendants began setting similar placements on the table before us, being careful not to distract, but clearly preparing us for a meal soon to be served.
“Xarmnian aggression soon began, after a fall-out between the families, and our towns sort of got swept up into it. Capitalia built a wall to curb the aggression and incursions being made into it. Frustrated, the Xarmnians began to tear across the land, laying siege to communities and taking over towns, imposing their rule and might against us. Where once they were peaceable neighbors, they were now cruel oppressors, demand tribute, seizing our lands and goods when we refused to pay. We were told that the Capitalians were our enemies, and we were severely warned not to trade with them, and to alert the Xarmnians if ever a Capitalian was discovered or caught on this side of their wall.”
Here pewter plates and wooden bowls were being set before us, along with wooden spoons and metal two-tined forks and cutlery.
“We wanted nothing to do with the feuding of the two family groups, but several of us had already married into the conflict, and there was no separating us from the growing threat. With Capitalia so far distant on the other side of their wall and the mountain pass, we had no choice but to try to appease the Xarmnians. We tried to placate them, but they demanded so much more. They suspected everyone who did not embrace their philosophies, so they demanded that we prove our loyalty. They conscripted our young men for their armies. They took our children hostage. They infiltrated our learning centers and brought strange ideas to our families and demanded our children be subjected to their ideas daily. Anyone refusing to surrender their child to the learning center each day would be marked and watched, and eventually, their child would be taken from them. We were in a giant crucible, being grilled over harsh fires. Food and property began to be rationed, overtaken and then parceled out again, apportioned to the more loyal families. When Azragoth was taken and afterward when the plague broke out, our parents had gone into the city to trade because it was the only place yet to be conquered by the Xarmnians. Our parents were not loyalists. In fact, they were quite the opposite. The Xarmnians were resentful and attempting to starve us out. As long as Azragoth remained independent and neutral, we always could get food and have what little we had to sell, get a fair price enough to sustain us. Mother always did try to feed me extra. She reasoned that if I were fat, the Xarmnians would not be interested in taking me to their army. She thought she was protecting me. On that fateful night, when Xarmni invaded, the lower fields were swarming with soldiers. No one was allowed in or out. For days afterward, when they did not return, Nellus and I feared and then grieved and then tried to make do, resigned to the fact that they were never coming home. We were not allowed to go to Azragoth, even after the armies left the area. Azragoth was quarantined. Azragoth was dead. We had no hope of it ever being a haven for the surrounding villages again. Only the dead resided there.”
Pewter cups were filled from the flagons placed throughout the long table and set before each of us. Steaming bowls of pottage, a sort of brothy cabbage soup with barley added, was set before us and we began to eat and drink, as Corimanth went on.
“Nellus is only two years older than I am. But she became both mother and father to me as best as she could. We only had each other, and I gave her the worst of it, it grieves me to say. I was a mother’s child. A brat and I had been pampered and protected from hard work and fattened up, more than I ever should. I had a taste for sweets and a way to get them, that I am ashamed of. A few of the other boys in town and I were ne’re-do-wells. We learned to the art of sleight of hand. To palm fruit and sweets from shops and market carts, mostly without being caught in the act. I became exceptionally good at stealing. And I rationalized it as being able to survive. It was the source of many of our conflicts growing up. Nell could not abide stealing, and I would not own up to it or call it that. Nell was right. I was wrong. We had lost our parents and I was always angry about it and took my frustration out on my poor sister and everyone else who had something I wanted. Nell said it many times, that it was a mercy that our parents weren’t there to see what I had become. I acted like I didn’t care then, but I did. I was angry at myself mostly, but it came out badly because I bottled it all up inside. Anger taken in is like giving a guest room to a conqueror. Its nature is to take over, and it will dominate and harm all of the other guests before all is said and done.”
Nell had unfolded her arms at this point and was thoughtfully stirring her pottage, not yet having found the stomach to eat it, but attentively listening to the words of her brother. Tears were forming in her eyes, though, and Begglar squeezed her free hand reassuringly.
Here Corimanth stopped and turned to his sister. When she raised her eyes to him, he spoke directly to her.
“I was ashamed of what I had become. How I treated you, the things I made you suffer and for bringing shame to the memory of our parents lost in the tragedy of Azragoth. I am not making excuses for it. I am only telling you what I should have told you long ago,” he cleared his throat, “before The Eagle approached me and the others.”
Nell, closed her eyes shaking her head slightly. This was too much. All of the anger, resentment, self-doubt because she had so failed to control her own brother, the pain from having it go so wrong in the end and the terrible things she said to him before they parted ways, rushing back to her now. Tears poured from the corner of her eyes as she dared once again to hope, she was mistaken about her brother.
Corimanth gave her a moment, tears beginning to well up in his own eyes. Tears that she could not see while looking away from him, into her own pain. From the folds of her dress, in a hidden pocket, she pulled a small kerchief with which she brushed tears from her cheek.
“You were a seer,” Corimanth almost choked on the words, the pools of tears beginning to escape from his eyes and course down his cheek and beard.
“If I could not fool you, there would be no way, I would fool the Xarmnians. It was my chance to do something worthwhile. For you and for everyone in Sorrows Gate and for those friends lost in Azragoth.”
Nell opened her eyes and turned to Corimanth once again, “What are you telling me?”
Corimanth swallowed hard and looked directly at his sister, tears wetting his reddened cheeks.
“I was asked to be a spy for those resisting Xarmnian rule.”
Nell’s eyes widened and she flushed, heat rising, shock registering on her face, “You were asked to be what?!”
Corimanth nodded and shrugged slightly.
“Improbable I know,” he bowed his head slightly, turning his eyes to his hands, which Nell noticed were scarred on the backs of meaty knuckles.
“But that is what the Eagle said made it useful. No one would suspect a coward and a hot-headed thief to do anything so…,” he trailed off but Nell finished the thought for him.
“Selfless,” she said quietly, only now taking his hand, a gesture of new found trust forming between them again.
“I knew you would never agree to it. And you would never believe my sincere desire to do it. We had to make it look like you and I…”
Tears formed new again, from the well-spring of Corimanth’s long-hidden grief.
Nell nodded understanding. Words were not necessary the painful memory of their public parting so clear in both of their minds. Xarmnian spies in the town would have seen and heard of it too. The Eagle and those joining the resistance were counting on it.
“I stole from those I thought had turned traitor. Afterall, the only vendors, merchants, and tradesmen which had food or goods to sell were the ones who had shown some appearance of loyalty to the Xarmnian Overwatch. I wouldn’t listen or believe Nell when she told me that they were still our neighbors and friends, only that they were too scared to defy the Xarmnians. They feared for their families so they capitulated and cowed. Many had so much to lose that they could see no other way to survive. Whereas we had practically lost everything. There was little more than the Xarmnians could take from us, except our lives, and feeling as I did, I figured I had little left to live for. Only my Nellus, and she was known as a women who had strong opinions and fierce courage. Just like father did.”
Here he looked up and around the room.
“I am sorry, you were not received in a better fashion, but there is, in this city still great fear offset by courage. Azragoth is very wary and cautious of strangers. Those from the Surface World, especially so.”
The woman in our group, who had rallied the others, in my own season of self-doubt, asked, “And why is that?”
Corimanth, leaned over and spoke briefly to Maeven, and she gestured towards, me, which caused him to look my way.
“O’Brian, is it?”
I glanced at Begglar who grinned, but did not look directly at me, so very interested he seemed to be just now in quickly consuming his pottage soup.
“Yes,” I answered, to my persistently “given” name.
“I am told you are leading this party,” Corimanth continued, “Have you not told them why?”
I cleared my throat, and sudden interest in my pottage soup beckoned me to attend to it before it became cold.
“I was building up to it,” I answered evasively.
“Building up to it,” Corimanth seemed to mull that over thoughtfully a moment.
“Well then,” he decided, “I’ll leave that tale to your own sense of timing. You know your people better than I. But, they will eventually need to know why we, who live here, have a very natural caution when dealing with your kind. We’ll leave it at that for now.”
Grateful, I nodded, though the others in our company cast suspicious and impatient glances at me.
Dinner was at last served. A wooden platter of steaming vegetables was brought in with a whole spit-roasted suckling pig and rolled meat pieces called brawn, which I knew, but decided it best not to tell the others what it consisted of. Let’s just say, it was better than what was processed, pressed and shaped into the Surface World’s meat called baloney.
For a city in seclusion, the fare served here was far better than I had expected it to be.