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Wednesday, 10 April 2013

[Short Story] Schism

The man walked slowly but deliberately, each one of his footsteps heavy and intentional. It was a rhythmic, plodding pace which would have been altogether serene had it not been for the accompanying clanking of the man's thick iron chains and the furious roar of a crowd baying for blood. He stopped for a moment, somewhat weary from the walking in the warm springtime sun, but was quickly prodded into motion once more by a nearby soldier wearing the King's colours. The man's vision was obscured somewhat by the thick cotton hood over his head, but he still had enough sight to find his way to the large wooden block on which he was told to rest his head.

"Fine day for an execution, don't you think?" a voice came from behind Lord Morgan's shoulder as he peered out from amidst the crowd. The voice belonged to a somewhat short but broad man, tanned, thick-haired and somewhat scarred, wearing all the trappings of a noble; though Lord Morgan knew him to be of common birth.

"What makes you say that, General?" Lord Morgan replied, looking back to the man on the podium in front of them; squinting slightly as light shone off the blade of the headsman's raised axe. He turned back to the man beside him just in time to hear the weighty thud of an axe hitting wood, and the excited applause of the crowd as they cheered for the swift, bloody act. "What did he do? Presumably something horrendous, if he's to be sent to the fires."

"Does it matter? They want someone to blame for their problems, and we give them someone." General Tarquinius said, a smile crossing his lips; the General had always been a somewhat cruel man, Lord Morgan suspecting this to be the reason for his steady advance up the ranks. The two men had never seen eye-to-eye particularly frequently, both due to a slight difference in height and a slight difference in approach. Whereas the General was stumpy, strong and grizzled Lord Morgan had preferred to stay out of conflict where he could avoid it; his physique tending towards the taller, thinner and decidedly more handsome end of the spectrum. Lord Morgan brushed a few sleek black hairs from his face, looking back to the stage once more as the dead man was dragged from it.

"It matters if you care about the people. They're hard-pressed at the moment, and crying out for someone to blame; are we simply letting them drink the blood they crave regardless of who it belongs to?" Lord Morgan turned to the General, adjusting the collar on his thick military coat slightly. "I fear that indulging them will only lead to more unrest."

"And what would you have us do, Morgan?" General Tarquinius frowned. "They're hard-pressed because there's a war on. Would you suggest we roll over and surrender to the barbarians after nearly two centuries of war?"

"Of course not; I know as well as you do that they must be pacified, and I would not have Milvian's crusades to be in vain. But surely... this will only leave the people unsatisfied when they realise that the criminals we keep throwing their way are not the source of their problems." Lord Morgan sighed.

"So long as they don't rebel and they keep producing goods, then order is maintained and there's no problem. Be realistic, Morgan; what are they apart from their state?" General Tarquinius shrugged. "They're citizens of the Milvian Kingdom as, I remind you, are you and I. They have been for one-hundred and eighty-seven years at this point... take that away and they're a mob with no purpose."

The General patted Morgan on the shoulder gently, before walking slowly away; Morgan left to scratch his chin and stare at the General's back as he departed. He pondered this for a moment; were the people so far gone at this point that, without the harsh touch of the Milvian kings, they would dissolve into chaos? Most probably. But was this the only way left? Surely not.

***


Lord Morgan sat in the Council Chamber as the Lords bickered away at one another before the meeting. It was a dull chore, to meet each season as they did, but one that was wholly necessary for the smooth running of the Kingdom. One Lord, an older man named Corrigan, sat across the spacious chamber from him; giving him a small nod of recognition as he did so, a gesture which Morgan returned. Corrigan was a fairly bold man, difficult to deal with but loyal and uncompromising in his principles; his grey hair marked years of experience beyond anything the other Lords, or even the King, had to their name. Morgan had always gotten along with him better than the other Lords... perhaps it was their personalities, or perhaps just coincidence, but he seemed a more worthy conversation partner than any of the other fatted nobles.

The Lords fell into silence, clambering to their feet as the King entered the large chamber, the loud metallic footfalls of his ceremonial armour ringing out on the smooth stone panes as he walked in; retainers making sure that the back of his long red cloak did not snag and pull any oil lamps to the floor. He marched to the head of the table and sat in the immense wooden throne there, placing himself neatly on the velvet cushion and leaning his head against its intricately carved back; the fractured, black-coloured iron crown he wore clinking slightly as it met the wood behind him.

"His Majesty, King Flavius Milvian bids you sit at his table of Lords." the Herald proclaimed boldly. "Do so now, in good grace and good peace. As fire sustains us, we shall parley."

The King nodded, and the Lords sat once more. The words were a little clumsy, but had been in use since the first Milvian King all that time ago; and breaking from tradition was never something the Lords were particularly happy to do. Lord Morgan sighed to himself, turning his attention towards the King as he read out this season's proclamation; on the whole merely affirming all that they were already doing, for the Kingdom appeared mercifully free of poxes and famines for the meantime. There was mention of the barbarians also, if only to note that the crusade was to continue and they were putting up more resistance than originally anticipated... but then the crusade had been established during Valerius Milvian's reign, and this small phrase had almost become a mantra of madness, so often was it read out in the Lords' Court.

Eventually however, Lord Morgan was surprised to find the topic of growing civil unrest breached by the King's proclamation. He took a quick glance across the wide table the six Lords and their liege were sat around; no-one else seemed to be offering any insight into the matter. Perhaps then, he might.

"My liege, I bid you let me speak." Lord Morgan cleared his throat, the other Lords peering curiously at him. Morgan was always a little quiet in these meetings.

"Please, do." King Flavius nodded. A small smile graced the young King's noble features; he placed a hand on his clean-shaven chin, leaning in curiously. Lord Morgan took a moment to take in his liege's appearance, his short blond hair and bright, youthful features. King Flavius was in his late twenties, but showed none of the scars and wrinkles befitting a king. But he was a fearsome beast when he had to be, and Lord Morgan knew that berating him would only serve to weaken his point.

"Thank you, my liege. I speak only to suggest..." Lord Morgan began, politely and cautiously, "...that the people are not going to be satiated by throwing criminals to the mob indefinitely. I understand the need for a scapegoat, but all we're doing is postponing their anger and sooner or later they will realise that we're changing nothing by doing so. If naught else, we'll soon run out of criminals. We cannot simply give them blood and pretend it will solve their problems."

"And what would you suggest, Morgan?" King Flavius said, leaning back on his throne; adopting a rather more thoughtful pose as he reclined. "The peasants complain over every little thing, to merely give into their demands would be financial suicide. Their asks for clean water alone would bankrupt us, for although our forefathers were apt at building aqueducts we simply do not have the resources available. The peasants must learn to fend for themselves... we've popularised good wells, cheap architecture and simple crafts. We keep them safe. What more are we to do, if giving them anything else would leave us unable to defend ourselves against the north?"

There was a small murmur as the Lords whispered this to one another for a few seconds. King Flavius frowned and called for silence, the Lords taking a moment to comply.

"My liege, if I may." Lord Corrigan said plainly, cutting across the lingering whispers. "I have an idea, though it may at first be difficult. In ancient days, when our ancestors were founding the mother-city, they permitted the peasantry representatives from among their body. Perhaps we might do the same; take one man of common blood from each province, perhaps chosen among the mayors of our larger holdings, and permit them to sit at this table."

"You would undermine your own rule, Corrigan?" one of the Lords shouted angrily; a portly, bearded man named Gallant. "If we elevate the peasants, what next? If they can speak for the King, what call do we have to be here at all?"

"I'm not saying we give up our positions, or that we give them any real power. Merely that their concerns are represented." Lord Corrigan retorted quickly, but was unable to continue any further as King Flavius once more raised his hand and called for silence.

"Though I appreciate your concern for the peasantry, Corrigan, what you propose is foolish and will only lead to more unrest. What you fail to understand is that the mob is not made up of dogs, loyal to their masters, but rather wild stallions; they must be saddled and broken before they are of any use. To release the paddock gate, as it were, would merely invite dissent."

***

Lord Morgan stretched as he walked out of the Lords' Chamber with his peers. It had been a long meeting; mostly taken up with economic talk and plans to generate more resources so that they might address needs for irrigation in some of the larger towns. Dull, tiring stuff. He yawned slightly, walking in the vague direction of his room; he would stay the night, then make for his lands in the morning. It was only three day journey, if he was prepared to travel ahead of his retinue.

"Morgan, a word?"

Lord Morgan turned around, just in time to see Corrigan's weighty hand pat his shoulder briskly. The elder noble squeezed tightly, his strong arm pulling Morgan off to one side into a small passage which ought to lead to the palace's servant-quarters. Morgan frowned as he was pulled away, Corrigan's firm grasp hurting slightly. Once they were out of sight and earshot, Corrigan looked Morgan in the eye and gave him a wry smile.

"What do you want? I'll need to sleep early if I'm to be back home soon."

"I never knew you had it in you, boy." Corrigan grinned, punching Morgan's shoulder. "I always thought you were soft, lad. But it seems you have a backbone after all."

"All I did was make a suggestion for a bit of temperance." Morgan said, rubbing his arm slightly.

"And sometimes, that's all it takes. But not today, not with this. The people are crying out for blood, but they're crying out for ours - they're not just dissatisfied, they don't see any hope. They're pining for days long gone when they could claim to be free people under their King." Corrigan frowned, leaning back on the wall behind him; idly tracing its intricate floral pattern with one finger. It was clear he knew it well.

"Careful, Corrigan. Idle talk costs lives, and if you keep going with that they'll have your head for treason." Morgan frowned. "We are subjects of his majesty. Find solace in that."

"Are we, Morgan?" Corrigan smiled. "You and I are descendant from Kings just as ancient as the line of his majesty. Your own ancestors fought Valerius Milvian to protect what they saw as just."

"Days long dead, Corrigan."

"Perhaps, perhaps not." Corrigan smiled weakly, straightening up slightly. Though he was in his sixties, Lord Corrigan was a man of impressive stature and athletic build. "But here is not the place. I believe that you want the best for the peasantry, Morgan. And you would do well to consider where your loyalties stand... if you're interested, I and a friend of mine are to meet tonight to discuss the matter at hand more before we depart for our holdings. We're to meet under the eastern aqueduct, in a pub nestled under one of the arches."

"And if I were to take this information to his majesty the King, Corrigan?"

"Then you would be rewarded and it will be my head next thrown to the mob... forgive me, not mob. 'Stallions'." Corrigan chuckled, patting Morgan on the head as he turned to walk away. Morgan watched him depart, slinking over to a nearby bench - the old wood creaking as he placed his weight upon it. He placed his hands in his head for a little while, taking the time to think; sitting there long enough for a maidservant to pass by and ask if he was feeling well. He shooed her away, saying that he was fine.

***

Morgan walked, cloak tightly gathered around his person as he made his way through the cool night air; eyes fixed on the immense stone structure rising out of the city in front of him. The aqueduct had been built about the same time as the palace and the keep; a few centuries before the Milvian Age, by the ancestors of the modern southern peoples. Great, tall, made from hewn stone; a marvel of the ingenuity of the ancestors and the strength of their slaves. It carried the city's water supply upon its great wide shoulders, ferrying it across the richer, older parts of the city in abundance... their own additions allowing for a serviceable coverage of the wider city.

He caught sight of the pub he had been told about; a small place, modest in its furnishings and easily blending into the other dark wooden buildings around it. A sign hung above its door depicting a Knight standing over some sort of mythical beast; a fitting image, perhaps one chosen deliberately. He approached, carefully opening the creaking door and slipping inside. Morgan squinted, trying to peer through the dim light into the room beyond and catch sight of anyone he might recognise; the place was poorly lit, the owner apparently unable to afford enough oil to light the whole place simultaneously. After a couple of minutes' searching, he rested on a group of hooded figures clustered around one table; Corrigan lifting his hood slightly so that Morgan would be able to spot him. The Lord nodded, coming and placing himself around the table; looking wearily at the other anonymous companions.

"We already know each other." Corrigan smiled slightly. "But for the sake of clarity, let's give our names anyway. I am Lord Corrigan Du Gautier, holder of the Thesis flood-lands."

"Lord Morgan Barrow, holder of the Haver Veil." Morgan said simply, looking to the other hooded figures tentatively. It was only a matter of seconds before they would reveal themselves to him.

"Lord Everett Halter, holder of the Winding Marsh." the first man said, taking down his hood. Lord Everett was a thin man who always looked a little underfed; though he was known for fast hands and a fast tongue. His hair was short, near-shaven, his face a little slim but not gaunt. He grinned, reclining in his chair; glad to have the fa├žade of anonymity over and done with. He looked to the figure on his right.

"Lord Johannes Valhalla, holder of Versa Minor." the second man said, removing his hood. The Valhallas had always been known for their size, and Johannes was no exception; sitting a good half a foot above Corrigan, the next-tallest figure sitting at the table. It was said the Valhallas had some northern blood in them, though they would certainly never admit to it. Johannes gave Morgan a grim nod, drawing Morgan's eyes to the distinctive scar across Johannes' mouth. The man had always considered it a trophy.

"Thomas Norfolk, leader of the peasants' brigade in the Haver Veil." the final man said, removing his hood. This was a face Morgan did not recognise, though his name was familiar; the man was a little dirty, his face a little flabby, but he was known for being a good commander. Corrigan had given him broad control over the conscription process in his territory, leading to the creation of the 'Peasants' Brigade'; a loose network of commoners with basic militant training who could be summoned in case of emergency.

"Is this everyone?" Morgan said, motioning to the four men. "Or are there others involved in this?"

"Among the Lords, this is it; Tom is here because he's part of my retinue. But we have other support, scattered about the place." Corrigan nodded. He calmly turned and waved a barmaid over, handing her a few coins and asking for a round of strong ales.

"You've been planning for a while, then." Morgan sighed, looking at them. "I never knew you to give your trust easily, Corrigan."

"We came together out of convenience." Johannes grunted, looking sharply across the table at Corrigan. "Trust is a luxury we don't have; what we do have is a common goal, if not common rationale."

"And that goal would be?"

"Restoration." Corrigan smiled once more, waving his hand in the air grandly. "Restoration of the old days. It's nearly two-hundred years ago that our forefathers were either bribed or beaten until they agreed to Valerius Milvian's idea of a single united kingdom, and look where that's gotten us. Disease is rampant, we're growing beyond our cities faster than we can expand, and the war with the north is still going on. Think of it Morgan, two-hundred years since the people could call themselves free citizens under a free King. Two-hundred years of one despot making decisions on behalf of a multitude."

"Two-hundred years of our family names' subjugation." Johannes added bitterly.

"Surely you can't be thinking of a rebellion." Morgan said in hushed tones, eyes hurriedly darting between the assembled group as he leant in closer. "That's... mad. King Flavius will have our heads!"

"Listen, I don't know about what goes on in the 'Veil, but my lads are getting sick to death of pissing Milvian monarchs and their decrees." Everett said, his marsh-lander accent pushing its way into his speech. He took the ale offered to him by the returned barmaid, taking a deep swig of it before looking to Morgan and continuing. "He may well be an able administrator for the flatlands and the foothills, but the man knows nothing of how my lot live. Maybe in days gone by I could say that a united royalty was a good idea, but not under Flavius. Everything has to be ratified by the council with him, and spread over the whole damn Kingdom; no-where gets its need met, because everyone has to be on a level playing field."

"We spread resources equally specifically to stop the people feeling neglected. Everywhere gets the same treatment." Morgan said, his voice wavering slightly.

"You yourself said it, boy. What we're doing is not working; the people want someone to blame, and we're throwing them murderers as if it will solve something." Corrigan asserted firmly. "I say we give them the real cause of it all; a King who refuses to deal with their problems because it would threaten his own position to do so. You heard him, talking about the water problem; he refuses to act because it would cause problems with the barbarians. People are dying of disease so that he can stop a few yearly raids."

"Please, Corrigan; all of you. You're talking about starting a war, Flavius will not simply roll over and let you take your land from the Kingdom. And what of the people? You say you want to help, but thousands will die bloody deaths because of this! Please, see some sense!" Morgan said frantically, the others looking to him coldly.

Corrigan let out a long, drawn-out sigh. He looked Morgan in the eye.

"This is your choice, Morgan. You stand with us, and for the people, or you stand against us, and for the King." he said, the words cold and emotionless. It was a stark, uncompromising demand. "Which will it be?"

"I think I'll answer that on his Lordship's behalf." a voice said from the back of the room. Corrigan whirled his head around, seeing General Tarquinius standing at the entrance to the pub; royal guards either side of the stout man's shoulders. The General grinned maliciously, drawing his blade and pointing towards the gathered group. "You've done well, Morgan. You're a King's man, and for that you will be rewarded. Stand aside, and you will be unharmed."

Morgan looked to Corrigan, sighing momentarily before doing what he was told; a pained, apologetic look on his face as he backed away from the group and stood to one side; the various other patrons of the pub looking on to the scene, terrified at what they were witnessing.

"It seems I was wrong about you after all." Corrigan said, looking furiously at Morgan. "Perhaps you don't have a backbone, as I had originally thought. No matter."

"Surrender now and you will be granted mercy." General Tarquinius said, eyes gleaming. "Your lands and titles will be stripped and your family reduced to the status of a common man's, but your lives will be spared. What say you; is the King not generous?"

Corrigan, Everett and Johannes looked to one another for a brief moment. There was a silent unity among them. Then, Corrigan pulling Tom back slightly, Johannes stood. He grabbed the table. Then he flung it furiously across the room, the foursome using the loud distraction to run upstairs. General Tarquinius cursed them loudly, just managing to duck to one side before the large wooden thing struck him. He ordered his soldiers to follow them, taking a moment to breathe before doing the same. Morgan followed on behind, clinging desperately to some notion that he might be able to talk them down.

The group hastily moved into the public house's upper story, rampaging down the thin corridor as quickly as they could; guests opening their doors for a split-second only to slam shut and lock them a moment later. The Lords' party reached the end of the corridor, turning around quickly to face their pursuers. Corrigan and Johannes drew their blades, Everett searching around for something that may be of use.

"Well, I have an idea but you're not going to like it." he called to his comrades. Corrigan and Johannes replied in angry unison that anything would do. Everett nodded, coming to the window at the end of the hallway and fiddling with its lock for a few moments. Deciding that it would take too long, he put his boot to it and smashed his way through; making sure to get the idle shards of glass left around the window. He gave Tom a leg-up, pushing the man through the small opening and into the night air outside. He then shouted to his fellows that they should hurry up, before he leapt out and scurried into the night.

Morgan arrived up the stairs to find himself stuck behind the guards and General Tarquinius, all attempting to push through so that they might have at the two remaining Lords. The Lords were, unfortunately, resisting well; their swords much easier to fight with in the cramped hallway than the soldiers' long halberds. Blood was spilled across the walls and floor in abundance, bodies soon littering the hallway; the Lords easily able to hold out until the soldiers' morale broke and they turned to flee. General Tarquinius yelled at them furiously to get back and fight, but his cries fell on deaf ears. Soon, only he, Morgan and the two escaping Lords were left in the hallway.

Johannes patted Corrigan on the shoulder simply before he too leapt from the window and disappeared.

"Please, Corrigan, turn yourself in and end this before it turns into more of a bloodbath than it already is." Morgan implored the elder Lord, who frowned with disdain at his younger peer.

"It's already begun, boy! It began the moment you decided to turn us in. Don't try to follow us, or you'll regret it I promise you." Corrigan spat on the floor, but before turning to leave was assailed by General Tarquinius. The two locked blades for a moment, Tarquinius pushing furiously but unable to gain ground on his more skilled opponent. Corrigan thrust his knee upwards, winding Tarquinius for a moment. Corrigan followed up on this momentary advantage, kicking Tarquinius' sword from his hand and putting his own blade to the man's throat as he lay on the ground, breathing heavily.

"When they execute you..." Tarquinius panted, chest heaving, "...I shall take your holding and burn it to the ground. Not a man or woman left, do you hear me?"

"I never liked you." Corrigan muttered, before thrusting his blade forwards; not giving the man any more time to speak or curse.

It became quiet.

Morgan and Corrigan stood, staring wearily at one another, adrenaline pumping through both their bodies; though for different reasons. Corrigan wiped his blade on the General's fanciful tunic, before he sheathed it. No words needed to be exchanged between the two disparate figures; each knew where they stood, and where the other did. Morgan did not try to stop Corrigan as he clambered out of the window and dropped to the ground, fleeing into the black night beyond.

He sighed.

Corrigan had been right about one thing, if nothing else. The war had begun the moment Morgan turned them in.

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