Episode Seven

A child swings from a noose, his small shadow thrown wide by the setting sun.

This is the way we enter the town, down the one, winding dirt road cut through the grass of the plains. The path is so narrow that we must walk beneath the body, clotted blood still dripping from the gaping wound torn through the belly. The birds have pecked the eyes, the flies have buzzed about the skin, the mouth, the wound.

Selene, who once was so excited to meet new people, now walks with tears in her eyes–but she does not speak, does not give voice to the fear and anguish that has welled up inside of her. Instead, she reached out, and her hand is cold and trembling, her fingers curl too tight, a grip to break bones, to make sense of the world through pain.

We all do what we can.

The people here have been made hollow by the plague, by the days that followed. The bones of their cheeks stand stark against their skin made dark by the long day’s sun. They watch with eyes that suspect everything, eyes that bore through the body and into the soul to discern some meaning, some truth, and I wonder… Do we all look this way, now?

“Agapios,” the voice says, and stirs me from my musings. “Straighten your back. Hold steady.” It’s Panos speaking, and he claps me on the shoulder even as he drags me ahead, away from Selene, up between himself and Sotiros. “Don’t look so pitiful.” The words are harsh, but they’re not untrue, and they aren’t meant to cut any deeper than they do. A fine skill, Panos has. “These people are going to help us. Can you draw a map?”

Not well. But in the margins of these pages there do exist small etchings: a hill, a stone, a river that runs between them.

“This is where we were before the darkness.” Sotiros looks upon us in conversation, and though he does not touch the book–he never does–he looks close and nods once. The boy on the rope has marked the darkness in his eyes, has set his jaws, and the words come sparse and fast: “Good.”

“I don’t want help from these people,” the king spits the words too loud, for the man who guides us ahead turns back to look upon him, the people whisper.

“We need their help, my king,” Sotiros whispers the word and does not act outright but checks his step, slowing before the king as a way to draw Thomas further from the front. “They know more about this new world than we do.”

“I don’t care. They’re going to kill us. You’re a fool, you’re a fool, you’re such a–”

It’s Panos who cuffs the boy about the back of the head and as he stumbles catches him by the back of his stained tunic. There will be no more words, for the king seethes but does so in silence. He knows when he has met his match. We walk on past piles of the dead: those long since gone to rot and those younger, smaller, whose flesh has been carved with knives and tools.

And for once, the king’s people agree with him. But we go on.

Into the center of town where the road broadens out enough for us all to fit. Where a man sits upon a throne made of wood and bone wrapped together with bits of hair and rope. The man has long, black hair that’s greased and pushed back from his head and bright, blue eyes that seem to stare into forever. In his lap he has Sotiros’ helm, its steel and silver finish chased with gold a clash against the torn and tattered cloak the man wears. He strokes the helm, his fingers sliding down the brow, again and again.

“Lord,” the man who has led us in speaks up. When the man upon the throne does not respond, he tries again, “My king, the visitors are here to speak with you.”

“And what do they want?”

“Lord,” Sotiros says, and bows his head. He will not kneel. “We come in peace, seeking guidance. Your men told us that you’ve been out in these fields long, that you’ve seen folk pass through. We’re seeking news of the other kingdoms.”

“And what will you give to us in turn?” The king, at last, rises from his throne. His black, tattered robes fall down well past his heels, the trail having long since gone faded and grey from dragging. For all of that, he is an immense man, near a head taller than Panos, the tallest man of us all, and with broad shoulders and long, keen fingers. He places the helm upon his head and it casts his face in shadow, all but for the blue of his eyes, looking out.

“The helm is a gift from us, to you,” Panos says, having been the one to give it. “You won’t find its like anywhere else.”

“Gold,” the king says, and spits. The spittle dribbles from his lips, hangs, and drops into the ground at last. He laughs. “Silver. Steel. What good is it? I want to know what you bring us. Such things I can tell you! Tidings from the kingdom of Khateen, word of who rules in the east… But there is a tithe, and you must pay it.”

“A tithe?” Sotiros.

“The Behemoth has woken,” the king presses on, his eyes going distant again, out beyond the limits of the town and into a place and time of darkness that we fear to recall. “The gods are coming back to us. They demand sacrifice. Did you never wonder why the plague went on so long? How is it that you survived?”

At this, his mocking tone, his acid words, the people gathered around us laugh.

“They demand blood,” the king goes on. “A sacrifice. Only this will keep them from our hearths demanding more and more of us. And now you have come and brought some hundred lives back into their grasp, and the gods will turn their eyes upon us. You think for that you will part with this bit of metal and be done?” In a fluid motion the king draws off the helm and casts it into the dirt. “We need more.”

“We do not have much, but–” Sotiros begins.

“I am your king!” Thomas hisses, pushing his way through again, small and childish as he may be there is a fire in his eyes. “Do not disrespect my people.”

“Seize the boy,” the tall king says, and with a wave of his hand the folk of the town descend. “This boy will be our offering to the gods. Let us give him a fine death to appease even them, and then? Then we will talk, and you will know all that you need to know.”

And like that, the world erupts into perfect chaos.

Episode Six

After the rise of the Behemoth, darkness fell.

For five days, we wander in the pitch black. In those days–a time we’ve come to call our lost days–we do not want for anything: we are neither hungry nor thirsty, neither tired nor desirous of mortal comfort. Nor do we fear: not the dark, not the emptiness, nothing. We have been made hollow.

This book has ever been a true companion, but in those days I could not see it. And if I could have seen it, would I have written in it? One cannot say. Certainly I cannot say.

The sun rises and falls each day, but it remains a red slash across a black canvas. Neither its light nor its warmth reach us. By the second day we’ve given up on trying to create light, for fires and torches both burn out and the kindling turns to ash.

In those days, the caravan is the only constant in our lives. We move forward, hand in hand, and follow the sound of its wheels as they trundle down the road. No one thinks to ask where the man is going, or why we aren’t there yet. We go on.

On the sixth night, the world returns to us. The moon rises in a fine gossamer of stars. The first light, thin and pale, cracks the shell of darkness and finds us. And on that night, in that time, we realize all that we have felt, all the fear and anguish, all the hunger and pain, and we weep.

Those days should be forgotten. The things we saw stricken from memory.

But history knows no mortal fear, and in its pages we must be true. In the darkness, a new world was born, writhing and sick. Alive.

Now, here will be recorded the accounting of that day: Behemoth! The sky roars, as if summoning the beast, and the ground opens up to shake loose its wretched child. Two eyes it has set into the side of its head, as dark and hard as any coals. Its horse, which is like that of a horse, long and broad, is covered in a skin as thick and coarse as to be like leather pulled taut over bone–too many bones, too many teeth that rip the skin with their sharpness to be free.

Its jaws, as large as two mountainsides, wrench open and scream into the void, but there is no sound. Instead, the color fades from the sky. The sun disappears behind a perfect black sphere. In the last dying rays of light, the beast spreads its great leathern wings and it soars.

And there, in the waking light of day, it is gone and we are alone again.

None speak of that day.

We hunt hares as we find them on the road and cook them over open fires until the skin splits and the grease pops in the flames. We crowd around the fire like fiends, like madmen, hungry for its warmth. The butcher burns himself in his haste, but he does not regret it. We eat with our hands and the grease shines wet upon our fingers, our mouths, our faces. None of it is enough.

It may never again be enough.

Quintus, a young boy born in the heart of the plague, has a face covered in red scars to mark his narrow brush with death. He has never been pretty, or strong, but from the day he was born he has held a lyre in his hand and his clever fingers have plucked the strings with such a passion as to make kings weep.

But in the wake of that day, he will not play. Can not play. Hundreds upon thousands of times he has set his hands to the familiar strings and for a breath his fingers move as if they know, but then they stumble and fall and he looks out onto the world with such open eyes devoid of any knowledge.

There is a shroud of guilt over my heart, for I relish now the fact that I can still write. My life goes on where Quintus’ has been cut short, a flower pruned too near the root. Sotiros takes the boy under his wing and praises his strong, clever arm, but a sword is not the same as a lyre.

“The town is just ahead now,” Panos says, come back from scouting ahead. He alone seems to unaffected by those lost days and while the rest of us are slow to wake back into our normal lives, he leaps into his role. The axe is never far from his hand and his eyes never stop searching for some unseen threat on the horizon. “We must have gotten turned around in the dark. We’ve probably been circling the town for days.”

“Are there people there?” Selene asks, and she turns to Sotiros when she speaks again: “We should offer them something. A sign of peace. There aren’t many of us, but if it’s a small town…”

“We might seem threatening,” Sotiros says. Back in the carts we’ve carried with us only a few precious valuables: the hard bread and apples that sustain us, but also a few scraps of gold, bits of silver set with jewels, and larger bands of metal that can be cut as coins used to be.

Is such a thing even worth anything, anymore?

“We shouldn’t give them anything,” King Thomas says. The four of them walk ahead of the rest: Sotiros, Panos, Selen, and the king, a private council. The king’s short legs slow the others down, but he refuses to be carried. Even walking up the hill, laboring as he is and pink faced, he does not relent. “Aren’t we in Tira, still?”

“Agapios?” Selene asks.

But any map of this land has been long since lost, or left behind in the castle. Probably these people existed between kingdoms at some point, paying some tithe to either kingdom but not beholden to their law–or their protection. It’s a middling answer, though, and the king isn’t happy.

“My lord,” Sotiros says, and it seems the first time in days when he’s stepped into his old role. Some color has come back to his face. We’ve crested the hill and the town can be seen below. A few curls of smoke rise from far-away chimneys. “We must consider the fact that these people might not think Tira has any power left, whether or not they were once within our borders.”

“But I am king,” Thomas says.

“You are my king, lord.” Sotiros makes a grave bow of his head, his dark hair falling in his face. “But these people are strangers to us, and they may know more than we do. It’s always better to start with your good foot forward. It’s much harder to repair the damage you may do unwittingly if you first show a man disrespect. Your uncle taught me that.”

“I–” the king begins.

“Look, there’s a few men coming out of the town. Sotiros, give me your helm.” Panos scarcely has to ask before Sotiros hands it over: it is wrought of metal but its border is chased with silver and two thin strips of gold run along the bottom. Like that, he has gone against the king, but neither can the king say anything for it’s Sotiros’ helm.

Panos turns away to walk back down the hill. “Hail,” he calls, squinting off into the fading light of sunset.

NEXT EPISODE>

Episode Five

This is how our world came to end: strangers.

Strangers came to Tira. Merchants, foreign nobility, travelers. They brought the sickness across borders, across the sea, to our gates, and we let them in.

If the gods intended this for us, they would have found another way. But, the point stands: if we hadn’t opened our gates, if we had been better guards of our own safety, would we have survived? Would our mothers and fathers, our sisters and brothers, still be with us? There’s a strange kind of guilt in surviving–in living with the memory of the dead.

So, it’s with a small amount of excitement and a great deal of fear that we see the carriage ahead of us on our second day out from Tiravida. When Selen comes running back, the sun bright in her dark hair, her smile wide, it takes me a moment to understand the words she’s telling me. “There’s a traveler!” she says again, gripping my arm, shaking me in her excitement. “We’re not alone anymore. There are other people. Just up the hill, there, do you see? That shadow. It’s a cart!”

I squint up at the hill. The last red fingers of sunset are stretching out across the horizon, the sun setting back behind the hills. Despite myself, I gape when I make out the shadow of a carriage underneath the branches of a grey willow tree. It’s enough to wake me from the fog I’ve been living in since Tiravida. Enough to make me forget the blood, the children, the crying.

But it’s probably just that–a shadow, a memory, a carriage abandoned when some merchant was driven off. I turn my head up to smell the air, wondering if the wind is carrying the scent of the carriage’s rotten cargo, or if the Thanes have already been through to steal whatever might have been left.

“No,” Selene insists, looping her arm through mine, made drunk with her giddiness. Her cheeks are pink and her eyes are bright and it’s hard to deny her that joy. “We saw it moving. Do you see? Look, there’s a horse there. It’s crossing over the hill. There might be a town! People, Agapios.”

It’s hard to say, but to me, that sight is more unbelievable than the face in the tree. It makes my stomach cinch, my heart jump; it makes me squeeze Selene as close as she squeezes me, for there is stability in closeness, and comfort. For I am as afraid as I am hopeful.

As we all are.

The king and his men gather in the shade of an oak tree, off the side of the road, their heads bowed in conversation. I wonder what they’ll do. For now, we’ve stopped the march. Every now and then, Sotiros or Panos or the king will look up from their conversation, squinting up at the hill. They argue over who will go, or how many. Over whether to bring weapons or to go in peace.

Over whether to abandon the carriage altogether, to trust that we will find a town instead, a place that feels safer. No one wants to take chances. Not after Tiravida, not after Tira.

But Selene is gripping my arm so hard and she is hoping, hoping, hoping for some miracle. Something that will make life make sense again. That a merchant can still wander the countryside and a person can still walk in their own kingdom, with their king, without fear.

I’ll go.

The thought comes upon me quicker than I can react, even. I repeat it–to myself, to them.

I’ll go.

Sotiros is the first to look up at me. “The king should go,” Mihael the once-brick-layer says, the king does not look happy with the thought. He saw his mother die of plague, his father, his older brother. His face has near turned green, and surely Mihael notices, for he changes tact. “Or if not him, then Sotiros. Or even Panos.”

“Or even Panos,” Panos says with a bitter laugh. He spits on the ground.

“We can’t send a soldier up there. That’ll put him on guard,” Selene says. “He might run.”

And so the conversation starts again, circling, circling, but all the while, Sotiros is watching me.

I’ll go. The words, again. I am a bard. We go where we want and speak to whoever we please. Everyone welcomes a bard. In a time before the plague, we were invited into every kingdom, into every castle. Folk trust us.

Or they used to. In the days I’ve only ever heard about. Are there any bards left? Do people even care? But I’m stepping forward already, and everyone has gotten quiet. “Let him go,” Sotiros says. Three little words, though he ducks his head to me as I take my lyre from my pony’s saddle bag. “Are you sure you want to?”

Yes. No.

“Take this,” Panos says, and he has my spear again. The tip and haft have been cleaned, there’s no blood left on the thing. But I see it still, and when I reach for it my hand still shakes. I pull my hand back.

No. A bard bares no weapons. And I should rather die a bard in this hard world than walk another day with blood upon my hands. Not unless I must, and even then. I go, alone and weaponless.

“Find out who he is,” someone calls, “and where he came from.”

“And where he’s going,” another says, “and what he knows.”

“Find out if he’s seen any of these behemoths the Thane mentioned,” Panos calls, last.

Halfway up the hillside, doubt starts to gnaw at me. The carriage is moving, but slowly, and its wagon is covered. From the back I can see a single horse pulling what should be a two horse carriage, and the beast is lame and limping.

I’m ready to be disappointed when I see him: a small man with long, black hair streaked with silver tied in an intricate knot at the top of his head. His face is deeply lined and his eyes are squinting in the distance, fogged with age, but his fingers are long and strong enough to hold the reins. A sword rests across his knees, bare, but I do not let it stop me.

Sir, I call. He doesn’t turn, and so I call again. Sir! I step close enough to the carriage to touch the reins, to shake them in his hands, and that startles him as if from sleep. He jumps a little, the sword clatters into the footwell. I clutch my lyre close, my fingers brushing the strings, making it whisper.

“Bard, are you?” he asks, not seeming surprised that I should be there–that anyone should be there, which gives me hope enough to make my heart float. His voice is accented, chopped at the ends. Khateen, I think, by the shape of his brow and eyes, by the cut of his clothing. “What king?”

King Petros–No. Not anymore. King Charles, the new king.

“Mm.” He nods as if he knows, but I can see now, something in his eyes. Something lost. He looks away again, back towards the horizon. “You and your king will want to go home, now. The storm is coming.”

A storm. But the sky is clear, there isn’t a single cloud. Fall is here, and my breath is a chill cloud on the wind. Soon, it will snow. But a storm? There isn’t even wind. The questions flood through me, the ones they asked: Where did he come from? Where is he going? Is there anyone else alive?

“The behemoths are coming,” he says, as if he’s said it a hundred times before. The words are old and cold, no emotion, but they are heavy enough to make my knees shake. “I’m going south, to a little town I know of. Me and my family.” He thumbs back towards the covered carriage. “There are folk there. Some, not many. Ready to weather the storm.”

I look–I follow his gaze, but I don’t see. Whatever he’s talking about, I can’t see it.

And when I look back he’s leaving already, driving his carriage back down the hill. And as he’s turning from me, the back of the carriage turns toward me, the flap whipping open for a moment. A moment enough to see the family inside: the dried and dead corpses, the pock marked faces, the flesh that has turned more to leather than anything.

And then the flap shuts, and the carriage is leaving, and I follow him to the top of the hill. Down below, there is a little town with a wooden fence. There are homes made of waddle and daub, with thatch roofs and curls of smoke rising from chimneys.

I turn back, back towards Selene and Sotiros, Panos and the king, the others. They look on, hopeful, and I don’t know what to tell them. Hope and madness, mixed. Death and life, mingling.

A storm is coming and I think somewhere I hear a roar from the very bottom of the world.

And it sounds like: Behemoth.

NEXT EPISODE>

Episode Four

I do not remember the name of this town. No one does.

It’s less than a day’s ride from Tira, our home, and I have never been here before. It must have been a pretty town once, on the hillside where little golden irises grow among the weeds and when the sun rises it crosses the land just so, turning the nearby stream all to shining silver.

From up here, the world is beautiful.

The thatching has fallen on all of the houses, but the walls are beautiful, dark wood. The wall around the city has crumbled, its round stones scattered in the grass. But still, it had a wall once. Something to keep people safe. It was a home, once.

And yet we do not know its name.

“Did it ever have a name?” Panos asks when I wonder about this aloud. He shrugs. He is squinting at some bit of armor he’s found in the field–a helmet, or a piece of one. All the folk are picking over things, turning stones, looking at what might be left. Someone has found a little gold ring, but I think they would rather have found food. “Sometimes little places like this don’t.”

“Elias would have known,” Selene says, but the king’s cartographer is long since dead. And any maps or books he left are back in Tira, finishing their lives as kindling.

There are no answers.

A man screams and drops a stone on the ground.

There are dead children in the well. They have been covered over with heavy rocks and when Mihail and his men heave the stones out to see if there’s water, the sour scent of death escapes. Someone is crying. Maggots wriggle among sagging flesh, fat and yellow.

“Plague,” Mihail says and turns away, face white. His eyes are bright with tears.

Strange, that after so much death, we all still feel the prick of the needle.

There are no answers.

We put the stones back, one by one, and when I reach in to help, my hand brushes one of the children’s hands and for a moment I think his fingers move. I run away to be sick behind a house, in the crabgrass, where no one will see me.

It’s out behind this house that I first notice that we aren’t here alone. The sound is a quiet one: a breath, held, the first mewl of a sob stifled. It comes from the window above me, set high upon the wall so that I must stand on the very tips of my toes to look in.

The light slants in through the window, casting a swathe of gold across the dirty rushes. There is nothing, at first, and more nothing, and then: a shadow huddled in the corner. Two shadows. One small, tucked against the larger, who holds what looks to be a knife. A child, crying.

My heart clenches. I leave, quick and quiet, as my feet are skilled at being.

Four words, spoken quietly: We are not alone.

This is enough to bring Panos to attention. He has been helping the men stack wood for a fire at the center of town and his skin smells of sweat and dirt. The small bodies in the well: too fresh yet to be long dead; the scraps of metal in the yard: a sign of fighting, not of plague. These things my mind puts together too late, too slow.

He says nothing. I say nothing–could say nothing. My throat is closed with panic.

Step, step, I lead the way across the hillside, to the little house, home no more. I have found my spear, dropped in my haste to be away, and clutch it to keep my hands from shaking. With its tip I point at the door and make a sign with my fingers: two, and hold my hand low at the knee: one, a child.

Panos does not wait. Ax in hand, he kicks and the door splits open. Crack. Like thunder.

But the man inside is prepared. The child cries, I don’t see what happens to him. The Thane comes out, face greased and covered in soot. A clay pot hits Panos across the head and the shards go flying; he falls. I have a breath to wonder: where are the others?

Fighting, all across the hillside, other Thanes who have come to collect their dead children, their tithe. They are greased and soot covered, they are wild.

And then I have no time to wonder. The Thane is on me, his sour breath in my face, making the bile rise. I kick my heels and break his grip, fumbling my spear. He is startled and I know I could do it. I could move my shoulders: one quick strike, drive the spear into his belly. Done.

But I am a coward, too sick with fear to move.

And in that instant he acts, lunging. He has his little dagger, covered in blood, and he isn’t afraid. It hisses for my gut, but I twist away, I run. We dance across the hillside, he advancing, me retreating.

Once, I stick the spear down between his feet, but he stumbles and turns it to his advantage. His blade scores my ribs and blood splatters the stones. I fall forward into him. His skin is hot, his muscles tense. I will die like this, I know.

But not without a fight. I twist, I howl, I break away. He grabs my wrists, I wrench back and hit a tree. No where to run. He lunges, again and his heel slips upon a stone. Back, back, he falls. His head cracks upon the stone. There is blood–so much blood upon the stone, but still his body moves, twitching, his chest heaving with ragged breaths.

I put the spear tip to his chest. To kill him now would be a mercy, an end to his suffering. It would be easy. The anger flares in me and I so want to do it, but my hand shakes. There is no strength in me. I cry out, but I cannot do it.

I am about to turn around, about to leave, when Panos approaches, soaked in sweat and red up to his elbows. He has lost his ax somewhere, in someone. I think he wants to do me harm for leading him into the trap, but he grabs my hand, he keeps me still.

He drives my hand and the spear down. The bone cracks, the flesh splits, the heart gives way.

“Forward, Agapios,” he says, and spits. The spit is orange and red with blood. “We can’t be the men we were, once. None of us can.”

What happens after? I don’t know. I stand numb for a long time–long enough that the sun bleeds down into the horizon, that my legs ache, but still I cannot move. The fighting is over. Sotiros and his men have dealt with it. And still I can do nothing but stare down into those eyes below me, that had once been filled with such a fire, that burned to see me dead. And yet it makes me want to weep.

There are no answers.

“Agapios, come over here,” Panos says, and it breaks me from stupor. He calls from the doorway of a squat building. “You’ll want this for your book.”

I move without will, without effort. I drift, a ghost, into the room.

Where a man sits tied upon a chair. A Thane, bloodied around the head, the tips of two fingers missing, pared down to the second knuckle.

“Why are you here?” Panos asks. No answer.  He turns to the shadows. “My lord?”

I see then: the king is there. He looks younger now than even before, the way he stares at the man in the chair, wide eyed. I don’t know why he should be there, or why Panos should ask of him. He has never been a kingly man.

“Yes,” the king says, and Panos cuts another finger. The Thanes howls.

“My lord,” Sotiros says. “This isn’t right.”

“These were my people, weren’t they?” the king asks, and it isn’t indignant. It is truly wondering, as if he has forgotten even that. As if nothing makes sense. It doesn’t. Sotiros nods, grudging. “I didn’t protect them,” he says, sad. “I’ll make it right.”

Another finger. Why are you here. How long have you been here.

“A season. A full season full of sacrifice.” The words come out, forced, in Thannish, that thick pig-tongue. Blood dribbles out of his mouth as he speaks the words. “The children will go down into the earth and wake the behemoths. The giants will come back as the heralds of the gods. Weep! They wake, even now!”

Panos’ hand cracks hard across his face. A tooth, its root still attached, skitters across the floor.

“What do you mean?” Panos asks. “What have you seen?”

There is more, but I cannot hear it. The scent of blood is rising. It is sticking to my skin, like sap, and I fear if I stay I will never be rid of it. I run, because I am good at it, out into the open air. I gulp for breath I will not ever fully catch.

On the hill, I sit and look out towards Tira. It’s too dark to see the kingdom, but I remember well enough. Back in the town people are gathering by the fire, bone tired from a long day. Selene is there, I can see her dark hair, her soft, tan face warmed by the fire… I want to call for her, but I don’t. Something like pain squeezes my heart.

Mihail brings me a plate of food–roasted hare and a bit of hard bread, but it turns sour in my stomach. I should go and record what happens, but I cannot think beyond myself.

“I remember the first time I had to kill a man.” Sotiros takes a spot on the hill. He looks older tonight, somehow, as if bearing witness to the torture in that room brought out the lines in his face. The cup of ale he holds smells sweet, and he drinks from it eagerly. “How old are you, Agapios?”

Ten and seven. Ten and eight. Ten and nine. Who knows? I was born during the plague days, and we didn’t keep time, then. Days slipped into months slipped into years.

“Well, never mind that,” Sotiros says. “I wasn’t much younger than you when I had to make my first kill. I never want to kill a man if I can help it, Agapios. All men deserve life. But sometimes, they give us no choice. To let others be good, peaceful men, we must make ourselves into foul things. Do you understand?”

Yes. No. Maybe.

“That’s the way things were in Tira, back before the plague, before your time. We soldiers were revered, but in truth, we were horrible things. Tira is about truth, honor, and dignity. You grow up believing in that. But when you become a soldier, there’s no room for it. You must stab a man in the back. You must kill him, even knowing he has a family. You must do horrible things for the sake of the honor of Tira, even if it means you have no honor yourself. You make a monster of yourself so that the scholars can go on learning, the artists can go on painting, because… Without us, they would have to fight. And without them, there would be no reason to fight.”

There is quiet for a time. I did not choose this life. But then, who did? Who would? We watch the moonlight ripple on the river, slipping by below. Sotiros reaches out and touches my shoulder, gentler than I’d think. He does not smile, but his voice is kind. “It won’t get better,” he says. “But it will get easier.”

And is that good? I do not know.

Sotiros stands to go. The moon is heavy behind him, casting silver all around him and making his face dark. Please, I want to call, don’t go, and he lingers as if he’s heard me, looking first at me and then out across the ruins of the little town.

“Panos asked the Thane what the name of this place was,” he says. “It was called Tiravida, once.”

Tiravida. I lay back on the hillside and watch the stars.

For a long time, Sotiros stays there with me, sharing his silence.

There are no answers, but sometimes there are people to share the burden with. And that is something.

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Episode Three

Cowards. So they will want to call us in time, if anyone is still living to hear these stories.

They will want to say that we could have done better, that we should have done more. That we still had swords and good, strong folk to hold them. They will look at maps of a kingdom we knew better than anyone and they will see all of the possibilities. History will distill us to that single moment–the moment we ran–and call us cowards.

But know this: we did not go lightly. And when we left, we paid a price, as all folk must who choose to run instead of fight.

“Two more dead,” Panos says, and there is bitter acid in his voice. And I know his words are true, because I have seen them in the ditch down by the river: their bodies still warm with the fever that burned through them, their bellies slashed open where the Thanes caught them with their axes. My mouth is still sour with the taste of bile, no matter how much water I drink.

“It would have been worse if we’d stayed. We all would have died,” Sotiros says, comforting.

“I know.” Panos climbs down into the swale where we’ve made our hideout, beneath the roots of a great oak tree. We mighty men brought low–driven from a castle into a ditch where we lay in wait for the sound of footsteps from above, for the Thanes who have come for us. But they never do. The wind slips by and overhead the branches whisper secrets to one another, scattering a few dry leaves, red and gold and dead. The noise is enough to make us sink further into our swale, as if the mud might keep us safe.

There are thirty of us, now, including the children–including the king. And we fight to keep close for warmth as much as comfort, teeth chattering, skin pricked with gooseflesh, pale and cold as death. A skin of wine is being passed from person to person. We three alone sit apart, whispering amongst ourselves.

“Agapios, did you make a sketch of the tree?” Panos asks. It isn’t the first time he’s asked, I can tell, but it’s the first time I heard him. I shake myself awake–aware.

I have seen that tree enough in my nightmares that I will never need to see a sketching to remember it. Long after the charcoal has faded, after the pages have crumpled, I will still remember. The pages flip, flip, flip, until the face is staring out at me and I stare back, captive to her eyes, to her gaping mouth.

Panos snatches the book out of my hand. The spell is broken. I am empty inside, hollowed out.

“What are you thinking?” Sotiros asks.

“There’s an old god from before the fall, called Val.” Panos’ fingers track the pages and I try to grab the book back as he smears mud and charcoal over them. He keeps me back. “Quiet,” he hisses, whispers, words for just us. “This might be her. She was the goddess of the druids back before the burnings, and they say they worshiped her in the shape of the trees.”

That is no goddess. That is the face of a nightmare. The face of the end of the world.

“The gods are cruel things,” Panos says, and the two of them look at me for a time. “Only you poets make them beautiful with your pretty words.” The book falls into my lap when he drops it. From a little leather pouch he finds an apple, half rotten, and he takes a bite from the fresh side.

“You really think the gods are coming back?” Sotiros asks. As if by some sign, lightning arcs across the sky, sending ripples of light between heavy clouds. He keeps his hand upon his sword now, always, but it makes none of us feel any safer.

“I think the Thanes are bringing them back.” Another bite, to the core. Panos spits the seeds out into the mud. “I think every raid has been a martyrdom. Every man we killed was a sacrifice to their work. They gave their bodies to their gods and we sent their souls in payment. The world is changing.”

Thunder cracks and the echo rumbles through the valley, shaking the earth. Someone screams, and then a hand is clamped over the young boy’s mouth.

“Maybe we should go back,” someone says.

“There’s no one out here,” another adds. “We could still make a stand back in Tira.”

“We aren’t going back,” Panos snaps.

But he doesn’t say what we all know: We can’t go back. Not even if we want to.

We’re going south, to the Minotaur. South through the plague land of Tamaris, through ruins and madness, to the end of the world. To find answers.

“To find a way to stop the Thanes. To keep the gods at bay,” Sotiros says to me. He holds up his hand and a moment later a man tosses the skin of wine to him. He drinks, and the apple of his throat bobs up and down, up and down, with each swallow. And when he finishes, he puts the skin into my hand. “Write that in your book. Honor above all.”

Honor above all.

If the king has any opinion on this, he says nothing. He has gone so pale since we’ve left Tira, as if the home sickness that folk speak of has stricken him to the bone. As if as we leave Tira, he may fade, and fade, and soon be nothing but a ghost we’ve carried with us.

“We’re leaving,” Sotiros calls as he stands up. He has a voice people listen to. One that makes them stand, even when they long to sit, even when they grumble. “Get your things. Everything you’ve brought. We’re going south. There used to be a little town south of here, no more than a day’s walk. We’ll get there and find shelter.”

“If there’s any shelter left,” one man says.

“Agapios.” Panos, there again. He holds a spear in his hand, now. It’s made of a long piece of ashwood, smoothed down so it gleams like gold, topped with its silver point. He grabs me by the arm and hauls me to my feet, sticking the spear into my hand. “You know how to use this?”

No. Yes. Not for what he means. For boars, for pigs, as all men know.

“You’ll learn quick enough,” he says.

I think of the bodies by the river: cold, now, I’m sure. Have the animals come out to feast upon what’s left of them? Or have the gods come to claim their bodies in some payment, like Panos says?

Are we going to the Minotaur because we need answers, or because we’ve all gone mad?

I cannot answer these questions, I can only write what happens. This is my duty. Honor above all. We, last vestiges of humanity, shamble ever onward, towards what we believe to be the light, and as we leave the swale the clouds part and at first the sun shines through, gold upon the green land. And then the deluge begins in full, and we are walking in the storm.

The land outside of our constant kingdom is rocky and hard. The land slopes down into little rocky valleys and rolling hills covered in thick grass. It has been at least a full year since anyone has left those walls behind us. The land does not remember us, and we don’t remember it. As long as I’ve spent in the castle, looking out from windows on this land and wondering, it’s a stranger to me now.

Sotiros leads the way, and we follow at his shadow. I use my spear as a walking stick, picking my way across the rocky path.

“Do you think there’s anyone left out there, Agapios?” Selene comes to walk beside me. She uses my arm for support. The hood of her cloak is drawn up against the rain, but a few strands of her dark, curling hair spill out all the same, and her blue eyes shine brighter for all the gloom.

No. Yes. The Thanes, at least.  And gods, perhaps, if Panos is right.

But I’ve lost her attention somewhere. She’s looking at something, and then she’s walking ahead. Then she’s running up, up, to a tree that stands on a hillside, its leaves still impossibly green. She makes a circle around it. The group keeps marching on, but I go after Selene, a light in all the gloom, a flame that I’m drawn towards.

“I can’t believe it’s still here,” she says. She makes another circle around it, running, heels slipping in the wet grass. Her fingers trace the patterns in the trunk of the tree. She reaches up and touches the branches one by one, and then she’s laughing. Her eyes are bright with tears and happiness both. She runs back to me.

A tree. A tree. My heart is hammering inside of me. But there’s no face in it, as hard as I look. I see nothing.

“When I was just a little girl, my sister Alexis and I would come out here to play. Mother would go to town to buy food from the market and we would stay up on this hill and climb, and climb…” She wraps her arms around my arm. Her cloak is drenched and she doesn’t care, she’s staring up into the branches of that tall tree and wondering. And I am wondering with her. “We would make a game of seeing who could get to the top. Neither of us ever did.”

It is a big tree.

Selene laughs. At me or some memory, I don’t know.

“Isn’t it incredible? This tree is still here. I thought everything would be gone.” The branches rattle in the wind and rain water drips onto her upturned face. She puts her palm against its trunk once more, like she’s feeling for a heartbeat. “Some things are still alive after all.”

I want to say something, but what? It feels rude to intrude on the memory. She looks back at me, she smiles, as if I had said something all along. She ducks her head and, pink cheeked, hurries back off the hill. Back towards the group, turning already to shadows, hunched and walking into the wind.

I look back to where we came from, to Tira, to home.

The first grey wisp of smoke is curling up from beyond those great stone walls.

Tira is burning and no one has noticed. But I won’t tell them. History will know in time.

For us, we must move forward. Into what, I do not know.

Life, I hope.

I hurry on to join the group.

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Episode Two

The king is unhappy.

But so is everyone. Inside the castle the air is cold and suffocating. All of the shutters have been closed, all of the curtains drawn so that we live in the dark like frightened mice, scampering about in the walls. We cannot light a fire, not even a candle, or the smoke will choke us.

And outside, the Thanes wait for us.

Those folk who are more beast than man. Who have given their bodies wholly to the gods. They have stitched the hides of beasts onto their backs and crown their bodies with thorns and antlers.

And now they wait for us. They beat upon the castle doors with their fists, howling terror into the night. But the castle doors will not hold forever. One day soon, they will fall, and the Thanes will come. Tira will be overrun.

“My lord.” Selene has been standing before the king for some time now, waiting for some acknowledgment. When she finally breaks the silence, he still doesn’t stir. “King Thomas,” she tries again. “We need to start thinking about a plan. We can’t stay here forever.”

The king sits in his uncle’s throne. A thin beam of light has crept through a crack in the shutter, illuminating the silk tapestry across from the throne. The silk is dyed gold and has been stitched in black thread with the Tira mark of the hammer, and below it the motto: HONOR ABOVE ALL. The king stares and says nothing.

“The Thanes have burned down the granaries. All that we have left to eat is what’s in the store rooms,” Selene says. Moldy cheese and hard bread, baked a week ago when we could still use the hearth; casks of grain that are filled with weevils. All the people of court are gathered in the throne room: the treasurer, who was once a baker; the builder, who was once the stable master, and so on. All squatting in the dark, picking the mold off cheese. There are not enough of us left to fill even this one room. Selene looks to them for help, but they look away. “Do you remember our lessons in the geography of the kingdoms, my lord? All you need to do is pick which direction we should go, and Sotiros and I will plan the rest.”

This is a mistake. Selene knows it as soon as she says it, perhaps, for the king’s dull eyes turn sharp. He is five years old and a bright, willful king, may the gods have mercy on us all. The pounding of the Thanes has stopped for the moment, and the quiet that follows is deafening.

“Why?” Thomas asks and at first, I think she doesn’t understand him. “Why do we have to leave? This is my kingdom. It’s mine, not Sotiros’. Not yours.” His eyes search the room, squinting. His little fingers curl around the red cloak he wears, bundled against the cold. “I want to save it.”

“We can’t save it, my lord,” Selene says. “If we stay, we’ll all die.”

“Perhaps we were meant to,” Spiros the once-baker says. There are crumbs of bread in his beard and his eyes are hollow, sad. Once, his face had been handsome, but now it is covered in pock marks from the plague that passed him over. He touches them often–he touches them now. “The gods don’t want us here anymore. Didn’t you see the face in the tree? They’ve come back. Maybe the Thanes are right to worship them the way they do. Maybe we should, too.”

And so continues the argument that has lasted for four days now. Rumor of that day at the beach has spread and turned to myth. Now, they say, one can still hear the tree screaming at night if one is very quiet, and listens.

“Agapios.” Sotiros returns through the stairway at the back of the room, creeping in the shadows so that no one else notices him yet. His leather armor is torn and the old red blood has crusted to brown upon his arms, his cuirass, his face. He crouches upon the floor, the rushes crunching underfoot. “We lost three more today. Mark it in your tally. Sotira, Vlasis, and Aniketos. They died good deaths, fighting.”

The pen scratches on a page too full of names to hold more.

“Has anything changed here?” he asks. He is tired to the bones, so that even his voice sounds tired. His shoulders, back, and knees all crack as he moves. He is not as young as he once was, though there isn’t any silver in his beard yet.

Nothing will change. Honor Above All. The people love the king, even if they love the crown more than the one who wears it. The other soldiers follow in Sotiros’ wake up the dark stairwell, sinking into mats laid out on the floor or else going straight to the cask of stale ale dragged up from the cellars.

“As long as he refuses to order a retreat, no one will go.” Sotiros rubs circles with his palms over his eyes, willing away some budding headache.

“They’re throwing bodies in the well and in the rivers.” Panos is the last one up the stairs. He speaks low, to Sotiros only, as he crouches by him. His face is soot dark and mud caked. He turns his helm over in his hands, again and again, as if looking for something to throw it at. “We can’t drink the water anymore.”

“We’re running out of time,” Sotiros says. He stares at the king.

“Agapios, do you know where the Minotaur is?” Panos asks.

Where druids fear to tread. Where the land comes to an end. At the end of the world.

“If he’s still there–if he’s still alive, and he must be, because not even the gods could take him where he doesn’t have a will to go,” Panos says and spits in the rushes to ward against the evil of his own words, “he will know what we should do next.”

“Panos–” Sotiros begins, questions in his eyes.

“Selene,” Panos calls instead, and beckons her over. She is all too eager to be away from the king and his arguments and hurries over. “Have the Thanes found the hidden passageways yet?”

“Not yet,” she says. “I’ve kept them under guard, like you said. They haven’t heard anything down below, yet.”

“Panos, what are you doing?” Sotiros asks, grabbing for Panos’ wrist to hold him back.

“Peace, friend,” Panos says, and sets his hand on Sotiros’. “Peace.” He grins a mad grin, a grin to set the skin prickling, for Panos is known to delight in chaos. He grasps Sotiros by the sides of his head and kisses him once on the forehead, laughing. “Be fast. Keep your sword close.”

And so Panos slips away into the shadow, and if Sotiros wants to go after him he thinks better of it. He puts his hand upon his sword, all the same, and finds his helm in the rushes by his feet.

There is a pounding on the castle doors like a heartbeat echoing through these cold stone walls. All men grow still, all voices grow quiet in those moments. We wait, as we have waited these past four days, and when at last the pounding stops it isn’t with the sound of splintered wood and pounding fists.

The quiet is of a door being opened.

And then of chaos that swallows the halls.

“The Thanes are in the castle!” Panos’ voice carries down every hall, echoes between every wall.

“The fool…” Sotiros, staring, is quick to his feet all the same and on his face he has that same mad grin. People scream and it is good to hear that they still have enough life to scream, to be truly terrifies, as the sound of naked feet slapping upon the old stone floors fills the chamber, coming closer, ever closer. “King Thomas, we must retreat!”

“No! I won’t let you, we have to fight! Fight them–kill them! Save my kingdom!” the king demands. But in the face of chaos, not even he can argue as panic seizes him at the first sight of one of those Thannish men as one runs in.

And it is Panos who leaps upon that Thane, who tackles him before he can reach the king. It is Panos’ ax that cleaves into the back of the man, splitting spine and spilling blood.

“With respect, my king,” he says, and spits blood into the rushes as he stands. “Tira has fallen.”

“We retreat!” Sotiros cries, and this time the people listen. The king listens.

Tira has fallen. The Thanes consume the castle as the plague once consumed us, filling the halls, tearing stones from the walls. They chase after us, but we are quick and we know these places better.

We run like the mice that we are, scurrying through the walls, and we pray that we can stay one step ahead of the wolf that gives chase.

NEXT EPISODE>

Episode One

There’s a face in the old oak tree.

Or so they say. All day long the people sneak off and go down to the coast to see it. They come back and gather in the doorways, whispering among one another, smelling of salt and the ocean. After the plague, there are more ghost stories than there are stars in the sky. But no one has an explanation for the face in the tree.

Sotiros has asked Panos to go riding with him down by the sea to look at it. He’s left King Thomas with his tutor for the rest of the afternoon, having already spent most of the morning trying to teach him the proper way to hold a sword. King Thomas, it’s said, abhors learning and shuts his mind to it all. But that’s not true–he just abhors Sotiros, because even at five years old he knows who really has power in Tamaris.

Outside, the air is crisp. Autumn has come and the trees are changing, taking their first blush and shaking off their coats so leaves drift into the streets. On days like these, everything is vivid: the scent of olives on the branches, the sound of the horse’s hooves clomping on the cobblestones, echoing through the silent town.

“We’re not safe here anymore.” Panos. He has come dressed for war. His scale armor is dented and there are gaps where plates are missing, but it still shines like quicksilver in the sun. The ax on his hip is a notched, brutal thing. To look upon it is to feel the unease of its purpose. The horse whinnies and trots off the path a moment, but Panos strokes her mane and she calms. “We can’t keep defending this place. Every day more Thanes show up.”

The words hang in the air a long moment. The empty houses on either side of the road look on, their blackened windows hanging open like hungry mouths, yearning for what we cannot give them: people to call this place a home. The hounds, lean with hunger, chase one another in the streets and tussle, their fur matted with dirt and grime.

“I know.” His voice suggests that no one knows better. A hawk circles overhead, dipping beneath the wisps of clouds, and Sotiros watches it as his horse carries him down the long, sloping path towards the gates. “But the king wants to stay. He wants to fight for Tira, and so do the others. And I can’t blame them.”

“They want to die for what’s left of Tira, you mean. The city is too big to hold.” The horses take the stone steps down into the agora, empty now. The banners tied to the columns flap in the breeze, their colors a faded reminder of how bright this place used to be–green, gold, and garnet silk. “If we go south, we could find more people, we could rebuild. Forget about what the king wants–”

“I swore an oath to him.” The hawk flies off above the clouds and Sotiros looks away, his face warmed from the sun. “I can’t just do what I want. As much as I want to.”

“You and your oaths.” Panos bends across the saddle and spits as is his way, to avoid some evil. “The gods scour the land with plague and we survive so you can throw our lives away for an oath. A bigger fool I’ve never known.”

“Our oaths are the only thing that separate us from the beasts.” This conversation is well worn, and Sotiros is smiling. The two of them are like rams who butt their heads together just to hear their horns thunder. “But we’ll try to convince the king, all the same.”

Panos grunts. There will be no convincing the king.

Out past the agora is the old stone wall. It hasn’t been tended since the time of the king before the last king, if then. In those fever days, we went through so many kings. The stone is in shambles now, and dust is scattered in the wind as pebbles are strewn about the grass. At night, the wind slips through the cracked mortar and howls like a ghost through the streets.

The gate hangs open, swinging listless in the breeze. This gate has been repaired more times than can be counted, but like everything else, it has fallen apart.

“What about you, Panos? Your oath was to King Petros. There’s nothing keeping you here, now.” Sotiros passes through the gate and into the valley beyond. The land rises on either side of him in great mounds of packed dirt and sparse grass, and down the slope the sea can be seen, and the old oak tree. Its face, if there is a face, is turned away towards the sea. “You could go back home to Skarhold if you wanted to.”

“You know I’m not going to leave.” Closer to the sea, the gray clouds sweep in across the sky. The first cold rain falls, plinking on armor and soaking through cloaks. “There’s nothing left for me there.”

“Then will you swear a new oath to King Thomas?”

“I won’t do that, either.” Panos pauses. He spits again, off the side of the road. He pulls up his hood and goes ahead onto the beach, his stone picking a path over the rocky coast to the old tree. He makes a circle of it and stops on the far side. “Come and look at this–”

Before the word is out, an arrow flies from the shadows. In a breath, chaos erupts: Panos’ horse rears on its hind legs, the arrow plunged into her flank, yellow fletching bright against the blood pouring out of her.

“Thanes!” The cry comes from Sotiros and he’s moving on instinct, drawing his sword from its sheath and throwing back his cloak as he gallops down onto the coast. He yells back, “Agapios, away!”

Another arrow soars, but Panos has found his shield and he deflects it with the metal boss.

They pour of the shadows beneath the coral outcropping. Salt and sea spray glistens in the beards of the men and the long, braided hair of the women. Their bodies are shrouded in the hides of animals: bear, deer, and wold. The five of them move as one, run as one, scream as one.

So it appears looking down from the promontory where there is a stone just large enough to hide behind:  Madness. Some men will say that battle is art and there is skill, but to look upon it, there is nothing but fear and madness.

One man grabs Panos by the shoulder and raises an ax to cleave into his neck, but Panos snaps his head forward into his nose. The bone cracks and blood pours down their faces. The rain covers the rocky coast and they slip together, crashing, tumbling. The others lunge into the fray and drag Panos to his feet, beating their fists upon his head and clubbing him with the haft of their axes.

His knees buckle and his feet slip out from under him. He falls. But before he can succumb, Sotiros is there, striking from his horse. He falls upon them as a hawk upon prey and his sword cuts through the throat of the first man he sees. Blood sprays into the air and the Thanes howl and beat their fists upon their chests.

Someone catches Sotiros by the heel and pulls him from the saddle. His head hits the ground hard and blood reddens the stone. The Thane raises his ax. Panos bites into the flesh of his own wrist and his mouth comes away glistening red. He spits the gob of flesh into the sand and says a word that sounds like fire.

Flames seer across the coast, red and orange light flaring, there and gone. The Thanes scream, but the fire races down their throats to burn their lungs. Those who try to run are caught by Sotiros, who buries his sword into their bellies and strews the coast with their innards.

In the span of a heartbeat, there is no one left on the coast but Panos and Sotiros, stained with sweat and blood, with sand caked up to their hips.

“Bastards,” Panos says, and he spits upon one of the corpses, skin charred black.

“Panos,” Sotiros calls. He has stumbled over to the tree where he’s doubled over, fighting for breath. His face has gone white, his lips blue. The rain falls harder, spitting down on them. “Agapios, come and see this!”

The coast is wet with blood and sea water. Thanes lay across the stones, foggy eyes staring up at nothing, their innards twisted out upon the ground like wet black snakes, writhing, steaming in the cold. The sight is enough to make the stomach roil. The ground near the tree, at least, is blessedly clear.

In the trunk of a tree on the coast of Tira, there is a face.

It is an old face, as old as the world, as old as time, and it has two eyes that are knots dripping with sap. It has not been carved, for no tool could make so fine a line. It is not natural, for no tree could grow as this one has. It is not mortal, for when one looks upon it, the skin prickles to feel it looking back.

It is chaos and nightmare, for its mouth opens and from its wooden throat a sound emerges like the clatter of a hundred-thousand hooves.

And that sound turns into the cry of a war horn, and then two, and then five.

As one, they turn to look out at the mist drenched sea, where two long ships cut across the waves like daggers. Thanes stand upon the decks in rows, banging fists upon their shields and crying to join the voices with the tree who screams, even now.

“Back to Tira,” Sotiros says, the words little more than a whisper. “Run!”

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Episode Zero

The king is dead.

The last great king of Tira survived the plague that killed his wife and children. He survived the war that followed. Only to die in his bed, asleep. His mouth hangs open and some few flies buzz about, landing on his tongue or in the gaps between his teeth. In death he has soiled himself and the rotten stench fouls the room. A young woman is the first to turn away and throw the shutters open, but as fresh autumn air rushes in, everyone gathered lets out a sigh as if waking from some nightmare.

Down the hall, a child cries. The sound rattles around in the old stone walls. A few folk turn away, as if shamed by the sound. Sotiros does not. He sets his hand upon the hilt of his sword, rubbing his thumb across the garnet gem set in it. He’s been up in these chambers with the king for a long while and there are dark circles under his blue eyes, his black hair is disheveled and falls across his face like a shadow.

“Bring the child here,” he says, and goes to close the old king’s eyes and shut his mouth. The jaw protests, the body already stiff, and it’s with some force that Sotiros finally manages the task, the king’s teeth clacking together. When Sotiros turns around there’s a light sheen of sweat on his forehead. No one has moved. “Before it gets worse. Bring him. He needs to say his goodbyes, and we need to make our pact to him. Our new king.”

No one thinks to argue. Five of them bustle out of the room–more than is necessary to fetch one little boy, even if he may be the future king.

“Do you really think this is a good idea?” Panos has stayed behind–Sotiros’ constant shadow. Light where his friend is dark, broad where Sotiros is lean. He wears the fur lined cloak of those great northern reaches of Skarhold, and he keeps his hair long as they do, hanging loose around his shoulders. “Sotiros. Think about this before you do anything.”

“There’s nothing to think about.” Sotiros sinks into a chair beside the bed. A chair he has occupied for the past five days, near on end, when he hasn’t been out fighting. His hands lay open and empty in his lap, as if he isn’t certain what to do with them without a sword, without the king’s weak hand in his own. “Thomas is king, now.”

“Thomas is a child.”

“There’s no one else.”

“There’s you, still.” Panos stands opposite the bed, the dead king between them. The wind ruffles the curtains and a branch of an old olive tree just outside scratches against the sill, filling the quiet for a moment. When he speaks again, it’s a whisper. “You don’t have to give him this power. He’s not even the king’s son. The soldiers will follow you. If you ask for the crown, they’ll give it to you.”

“And if I ask for it, I’m nothing more than a thief. Tira will follow the royal blood, just like it always has. Thomas is the king’s nephew. It’s the best we have. It’s what the king wanted.” A sound from outside the door draws Sotiros’ attention. The knot in his brow loosens and he shakes out his cloak, but the wrinkles remain. “Here they come.”

The child king comes borne in the arms of a wet nurse that, at five, he was too old for three years ago. His face is red from crying, but someone has convinced him to at least appear royal, and so his little lip trembles but he does not shed a tear. Not until he looks at the king and big drops begin to roll down his cheeks. Still, he does not cry out loud.

“My lord,” Sotiros says, first to speak and first to bend his knee. The others follow–if not for respect of the boy, then for Sotiros, for Panos knows the people well. “Agapios, bring your book over here and witness the crowning of the new king.”

This is the way of Tira, and in that we maintain our motto: Honor Above All.

Even now the threads of fate are being pulled. The world we thought had ended is struggling towards life again. But what fate has ready for us beyond this veil, it is beyond our power to say.

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