In advance of tomorrow’s interview with Freya Robertson, here is an excerpt (the whole first chapter) from the author’s debut fantasy novel, Heartwood – book one in The Elemental Wars…
The belt hung from a hook in the doorway of a tent, weighed down by a bulging leather pouch. Gold coins shone at the top where the tie had loosened – an open invitation to the light-fingered.
The boy’s gaze alighted on it like a bird. He paused amidst the busy traffic on the main road into Heartwood, stepping out of the way of the carts and huge battle steeds that threatened to trample him.
He glanced around to make sure no one was looking and sidled over. A blue Wulfengar banner flew from the top of the tent, and he pulled a face at it as he reached out to take the pouch.
A large, strong hand clamped on his shoulder, and he jumped in fright. The hand belonged to a sturdy Wulfengar lord, his bristling face dark as thunderclouds.
“Laxonian.” The Wulfian sneered, and he spat on the page’s red tabard. “I might have guessed.”
He raised his right hand to strike the young lad. The page twisted, however, and wrenched himself away from the knight’s grip. Like an arrow, he sped off into the crowd. For a moment, he thought the Wulfian would let him go, but then shouts and curses echoed behind him, and he realised the knight was hot on his trail.
He risked a glance over his shoulder, and fear slashed through him like a blade at the sight of the knight’s bulky form barging through the crowds of people towards him. He picked up his pace, but without warning flew straight into a mail-clad knight, solid and firm as a stone wall.
“What’s the hurry, lad?” The knight’s words tailed off as the Wulfian appeared through the throng.
“He was going to steal my money pouch!” the Wulfian yelled, coming to a halt in front of them.
The page looked up at the knight he had barged into. The knight wore a red tabard over his mail which marked him as a Laxonian, as did his tall stature, his short beard and the light brown hair swept back from his open, honest face. The silver stag embroidered on the tabard marked him as Chonrad, Lord of Barle: a knight whose reputation for fairness and justice was renowned throughout the Seven Lands of Laxony.
“My Lord Bertwald, I think there has been some confusion.” Chonrad pushed the page behind him. “This is my lad – I sent him to retrieve a belt from my tent and he must have mistaken it for yours.”
Bertwald narrowed his eyes. “You are already wearing a belt.”
“Yes,” Chonrad said easily, “but the other one has my money pouch on it, and I wanted to purchase some armour from the blacksmith.”
“My tent flies a blue pennant,” Bertwald snapped. “Is your boy so stupid he cannot tell Laxonian from Wulfian?”
“He is somewhat simple.” Chonrad trod on the page’s foot when he opened his mouth to protest. “Please forgive his foolishness. And let me fetch you an ale from the drinks tent to compensate for your inconvenience.”
Bertwald stepped closer to them. The page shrank away, shuddering at the sight of the knight’s greasy beard flecked with food. “I have no intention of partaking of any beverage with a Laxonian.” Bertwald’s voice was filled with menace. “Nor is this your lad. Do not think you can make a fool out of me, Barle.”
“I do not need to,” Chonrad said just as quietly. “You are managing well enough on your own.”
Bertwald bared his teeth, but glanced up as another knight appeared at Chonrad’s shoulder. The page turned to see a towering hulk of a man that dwarfed even the tall Laxonian. By the way he moved in front of the knight, the page decided the man must be his bodyguard.
Bertwald gave a snort. “Peace between our two countries? It is a ridiculous notion. These talks will not last the day.”
With that, he turned and marched off back to his tent, knocking people askew as he barged through the crowd.
The page breathed a sigh of relief. Then his heart hammered as Chonrad turned to face him, hands on hips. “Were you trying to steal the money?” he asked in his deep, mellow voice.
“Yes, my lord.” The page gulped. Would the bodyguard beat him? He would barely be able to crawl to his bed if that were the case.
Chonrad nodded. “Well, at least your honesty does you credit. Whom do you serve?”
“L-Lord Amerle,” stuttered the page.
“Then you are very far from home.” Chonrad sighed. “I understand your motivation, but believe me – you do not want to start an incident with Wulfengar today, of all days.”
“No, my lord,” the page said.
“Go back to your master before he wonders where you are.”
“Yes, my lord.” The lad’s heart lifted as he realised he was not to be beaten.
“And no more stealing.”
“Yes, my lord.” The page turned to run and then let out a yelp as the leather boot of the bodyguard met his soft behind. He did not stop, however, but slipped quickly into the crowd. He knew when he had been let off lightly.
As he ran, he touched the oak leaf pendant hanging around his neck and thanked the Arbor that Lord Barle had been there to save his life.
Chonrad, Lord of Barle and second-in-command to the High Lord of Laxony, smiled wryly as the page skittered off into the crowd. He exchanged a glance with his bodyguard, Fulco, who rolled his eyes and shook his head. Little did the boy know how close he had come to causing the downfall of the Congressus, Chonrad thought as they made their way towards the gatehouse. Bertwald was looking for any excuse to end the peace talks and would have seized the transgression of a Laxonian page with both gleeful hands. The meeting, he thought with a sigh, was doomed to failure. But that did not mean he should not try as hard as he could to get it to work.
He looked up as the Porta loomed over him. The huge gatehouse at the easternmost end of the Heartwood complex towered over the rest of the buildings like an eagle hovering over its prey. For a moment, it blocked out the rising sun, and his mood darkened in keeping as he walked through the gateway into the place that had haunted his dreams for the last thirty-five years.
The solemn Custos – one of the many Custodes guards keeping a careful watch at the bottom of the Porta – saw the golden sash he wore over his armour, which marked him as one of the Congressus dignitaries, and then noticed the silver stag on his tabard. “The Dux would like to see you, Lord Barle,” she said. “She is upstairs, on the roof.”
Chonrad nodded and, together with Fulco, climbed up the stone stairs that curled inside the left tower, emerging into the open air at the top. There were several people up there, mainly Custodes keeping watch across Heartwood, ready to raise the alarm at the sight of any problems, but it was the knight waiting on the far side of the roof who caught his attention.
He had met Procella once before, when she visited his home town of Vichton on the coast, and he recognised her immediately. Tall and straight-backed with elaborately braided brown hair, she held herself like the stern leader she was, although the smile she gave him was warm.
He walked across to join her. “Dux.” He gave her the standard soldier’s salute of an arm across his chest, hand clenched over his heart.
“Lord Barle.” She returned the salute and then clasped his hand in a firm handshake.
He leaned on the parapet, and she followed his gaze across the vast expanse of the Heartwood estate. He had forgotten how large Heartwood was, having not been there since childhood, and he had thought to find the place smaller than he remembered, as often happens when you revisit somewhere from your youth. But he had been wrong. As he stood there watching the sun’s early rays flood the place with light, its very size took his breath away.
The Heartwood Castellum, a huge, stone-built fortified temple, glowed like a jewel amongst the scatter of buildings in the surrounding Baillium. It was an unusual, evocative building: its small, high windows sparkling and twinkling in the sunlight, its domed roof rising above the walls like the sun above the horizon. It was beautiful and strange, and even after all these years it made him mad.
The knight next to him raised an eyebrow. “You look angry,” she observed.
He glanced across at her. She had declined to wear a ceremonial gown as was usual on the day of the Veriditas religious ceremony and had instead donned a full coat of mail that reached almost to her knees over a thick leather tunic, the hood of mail folded under her braided hair. Her longsword hung in the scabbard on her hips, and she’d tucked her thick breeches into heavy leather boots. Her garb echoed his deep-rooted unease that these peace talks were not going to remain peaceful for long.
“Well?” she prompted.
He glanced over at Fulco, who stood to one side looking politely the other way across the Heartwood estate. Chonrad sighed and glanced back at the bustling Baillium, watching the people ebb and flow across the grounds like waves brushing at a shoreline. No one alive knew what had happened, not even Fulco. Was now really the time to open up the part of him he had kept hidden like a sore since the age of seven?
Procella’s eyes were gentle, however, and understanding shone in their depths. And Fulco, he thought wryly, would not be able to tell anyone what he heard; he was mute and communicated with Chonrad via hand signals.
“My parents put me forward for the Allectus,” he said eventually. “And Heartwood rejected me.”
It was not an easy admission to make. His parents had held high hopes that he would be chosen for the prestigious role of one of Heartwood’s Militis knights, and it had been easy for them to convince the seven year-old Chonrad that he would definitely be chosen at the Allectus – the annual selection ceremony. He left Vichton boasting to his friends that he would not return, and it had been a humbling experience for him to have to ride back into town and admit he hadn’t been good enough for the holy order.
Everyone else eventually forgot what had happened, but the knowledge that he did not have the indefinable quality needed to become a member of the Exercitus army had stayed with him through his growing years. In fact, he thought, it had probably prompted him to work harder at his soldiering, to prove to himself that he was good enough to have joined them.
“I see.” A small smile touched Procella’s lips. “It is our loss.”
Chonrad shrugged, but her admission pleased him. “Maybe; maybe not.” He exchanged a glance with Fulco. At first, the bodyguard made no sign he had heard Chonrad’s story, but Chonrad caught the little flick of his fingers. Fools, Fulco signed. Clearly, he was not impressed with their rejection of his overlord.
Chonrad turned back to Procella. “Who knows whether the life of the Militis would be suitable for me?”
Now it was Procella’s turn to shrug. “It is not so different, I think, from the time you spent in the borderlands.”
He thought about it. “Perhaps my life has been similar to yours as Dux. I would think, though, that for the Militis who serve in the Castellum, life is very different.”
She caught the barely-disguised resentment behind his tone and her eyebrows rose. “All Militis have to spend at least a year in the Exercitus,” she said in what he assumed was the tone she used on those who lay abed in the morning.
“Even so,” he replied, unperturbed, “in spite of the fact that Heartwood is like a small city, it still chooses to isolate itself from the rest of Anguis. And that must lead to a strange atmosphere inside its walls?” He made it a Question, although he was sure he knew the answer.
Even if she did agree with him, she didn’t know him well enough to admit it. “Would it make it easier for you if I said yes?” she asked crisply. “So you can feel glad you never became a part of its community?”
Her face softened. “I am sorry. It was not my intention to insult such an important visitor as yourself.” Her lips twitched. “But you did ask for it.”
He laughed. “I suppose I did.” He studied her for a moment, watching as her hand came up to brush back a stray hair from her face. For the first time he saw the small oak leaf tattoo on her left outer wrist. Truth to tell, she fascinated him. He had known a few female knights in his time, but this one… Strong, brave, authoritative, yet strangely compassionate, with very womanly curves beneath all the armour…
“Are you married?” she asked, surprising him.
“I was. Minna died six years ago, in childbirth.”
A look passed fleetingly across her face. “I am sorry,” she said. “How many children do you have?”
“Two. A girl, six, and a boy, eight.” He thought about the look he had nearly missed. Was it to do with his wife dying, or the fact that it was in childbirth? “I never spend as much time with them as I would like,” he added wistfully. “Do you wish you had children?”
Her eyebrows rose. He had the feeling she had never been asked that before. “I… sometimes…” She was clearly flustered, and obviously didn’t like that unfamiliar emotion. “Families are not permitted in Heartwood,” she stated flatly. “It is pointless even to think about the Question.”
He noted she had said “families” and not “relationships”. “Do you have to take an oath of celibacy?” he asked curiously. He wasn’t sure if she would answer him. The religious rituals the Militis undertook were kept very private and nobody outside Heartwood knew very much about them.
She looked back at him. Her eyes were very dark, the colour of polished oak. “No. Heartwood Animism does not demand the impossible from a person.” She referred to her religion. “It is accepted that from time to time a knight will need to satisfy his or her bodily needs. We are taught it is better to succumb to your desire than to burn with it.”
“That is sensible.”
At his amused words, her eyes fixed on him, but she did not smile back. “Equally, however, relationships are discouraged. Passion for a man or woman detracts from the passion we must direct towards our work, and those who cannot contain their feelings are encouraged to leave.”
“I see.” He spoke gently, understanding the warning behind her words.
He caught Fulco’s amused gesture, Pity! but chose to ignore it.
Procella nodded at the sky to the west, and he turned to see the faintly pink Light Moon, barely visible as the sun continued its ascent. She smiled at him, and the sheer enjoyment that flooded her face surprised him. “It is nearly time,” she said. “You have never seen the Veriditas?”
She turned and walked over to the stairwell. “Come on.” She winked at him. “You are in for a treat.”
Together, they began to descend the spiral staircase, Fulco trailing a short distance behind. The stone Porta consisted of two towers joined by a large corridor overlooking a portcullis and drawbridge. It dominated the surrounding landscape. Built to withstand a direct assault, it was really the main fortification in Heartwood, the Castellum itself – even though its walls were six feet thick – meant to be a place to pray than a place to defend. The Porta, however, was solid and substantial, an impenetrable block between high, thick walls that curved around until they met the mountains behind.
Chonrad watched Procella run her fingers lovingly along the stone walls as she descended the steps.
“Did you work in the Porta before you went into the Exercitus?” he asked.
“Yes. I was one of the Custodes and spent a lot of time here. I organised the Watch and looked after maintenance of the defences.”
“So what made you join the Exercitus?”
She looked over her shoulder at him. “You are very inquisitive.”
“I am interested.”
She sighed. “I spent some time training the young Militis at one of the camps in Laxony – they do not come to Heartwood until they reach the age of eighteen. Then I did my service in the Exercitus. All Militis do this; we spend a year away from Heartwood out on Isenbard’s Wall, patrolling the borders. The atmosphere between Laxony and Wulfengar was not as good then as it is now, and we were called on constantly to deal with raids and put down rebellions.”
“I should think you were in your element there.”
She laughed. “I did enjoy it, I must admit. I rose through the ranks and got to know Valens, who was Dux at the time – I think you know him.”
Chonrad did indeed know the mighty Valens. A huge knight, incredibly brave and fearless in battle, Valens had made it his business to know the lords of all the lands in Laxony, and most especially those near to the Wall. Chonrad had met him on several occasions, and had been disappointed when he heard Valens was retiring to Heartwood after an injury. Though he had heard much about her, and admired her, Chonrad had yet to learn whether Procella was a worthy successor.
“Do you enjoy being Dux?” he asked.
“Someone has to do it.”
He laughed. “That is not an answer.”
“It is all you are going to get.” She seemed flustered by his Questions.
“I am irritating you.” Was it because she did not intimidate him, as he imagined she did most people?
“Not at all. It is just… It is a long time since I have discussed my feelings with anybody. My life is a busy one and does not leave much time for analysing and the discussion of one’s emotions.”
“I can understand that.”
She shot him a glance over her shoulder. “And you unnerve me.”
She ran her gaze down him, her eyes alight with something he realised with surprise was interest. “You are an attractive knight. You must be used to making women flustered.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I am afraid I have little experience in that area.”
She stopped so suddenly he bumped into her, and she turned and looked up at him curiously. “Truly?”
“Well, I do not think of myself as ugly.” He knew he was tall and broad-shouldered, with strong features under his light brown beard. “But I am afraid I have not spent a lot of time entertaining. The sword has been my constant companion, not the rose.”
“You were married; presumably your wife fell in love with you?”
He thought about his wife. Memories of her stirred up feelings of duty and responsibility rather than affection. He had been sad when she died, but although he had worn a white tunic for the obligatory year, in his heart his mourning had passed long before that. “Minna was a difficult woman, and ours was a marriage of convenience. I am not sure love ever came into it at all.”
Procella said nothing, but her dark eyes studied him curiously. Perhaps she thought all marriages involved falling in love. The reality, in his experience, was very different.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and turned into the large room that served as offices for the Watch where they co-ordinated the changing of the guard and the rota for the day. “On your feet!” she barked at the Custos who lounged in his chair, playing idly with a couple of dice. “Have you made your rounds yet?”
“Er, no Dux, sorry…” His face reddened as his eyes flicked from her to Chonrad and back again.
“It is nearly time for the Secundus Campana, so you had best be off.”
He scurried down the stairs in front of them, his scabbard clanging on the stone.
She grinned at Chonrad, and he laughed. “You are very scary.”
“It is all an act. I am a pussycat really.”
“That is not what I have heard.” Stories of the new Dux had become almost legend, even in the short time she had been in the role. Most of the knights in the Exercitus were scared of her, and he could understand why. He had also heard she was a sight to be seen in battle: skilled, fearless and experienced, fiercely loyal, someone her soldiers would fight to the death for.
Once again, his interest in her stirred, but he clamped it down firmly. Distract yourself, Chonrad. He thought about what she had said to the Custos. “What is the Secundus Campana?” She had spoken in the language of Heartwood, and he did not understand completely what she had said to the guard.
She looked at him with surprise, continuing in Laxonian, “I thought you spoke Heartwood’s language?”
“A little of course. But I did not… ah… pay as much attention to my studies as I probably should have.”
“You are referring to not being chosen at the Allectus?”
“Actually, no. I was just very bad at school.”
She laughed. “The Secundus Campana is the second bell. The Campana rings nine times while the sun is up, marking time for prayer, weapons exercise and meals.” She smiled. “I forget most people are unfamiliar with the ways here. I have known them for so long – they are all I can remember, really.” She began to descend the stairwell to the next floor.
Chonrad followed her, Fulco trailing behind like a shadow. “Where were you from originally?” he asked, wondering if it was anywhere near his home town.
She looked over her shoulder at him. There was an impish look in her eyes. “I do not know if I should tell you.”
“It might… unnerve you.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I am from Wulfengar.”
He stopped dead on the steps and stared at her. She laughed, enjoying the effect her words had had on him, clearly not surprised to see his reaction. Her admission shocked him. In Wulfengar, women were not held in high regard, and it was unknown for them to enter the army, or indeed to sit on any council or hold any office in the land. They were forbidden to attend school or university. Wulfengar men regarded their women as brood mares, figures to satisfy their lust and produce their offspring, to cook their meals and look after them when they returned home at the end of the day.
Needless to say, Procella’s position was rather unusual.
“By the oak leaf,” said Chonrad. “How did you manage that?”
“My mother’s mother was from Laxony.” She carried on down the stairs. “My grandfather met her while on a raid across the Wall, and he carried her back with him as a spoil of victory.”
Chonrad said nothing. It was an increasing problem, one that angered him greatly.
“I do not think they were that unhappy. She grew to love him, in her way. But she brought up her daughter – my mother, to be strong and independent, and although my father did his best to control her, my mother managed to do the same for me. She was determined I escape the hold of Wulfengar, as she had not, and so, unknown to my father, she took me to Heartwood herself for the Allectus, and left me there when I was chosen.”
“That must have been hard.”
“It was a long time ago,” was all she said.
Reaching the bottom of the steps, they entered the large Watchroom. Usually a large oak door closed it off from the corridor to the north tower. Today, because all shifts of the Custodes were on Watch, they had pushed the doors open. The room now stretched from one tower of the Porta to the other, spanning the length of the wide drawbridge and portcullis below. The place was filled with knights, some arming themselves from the stock of weapons to one side of the room, others checking on the rota sheet where they were supposed to be at specific times of the day. They parted respectfully to let Procella, Chonrad and Fulco through as they crossed to the other tower and descended the final staircase to the outside world.
“Busy today,” Chonrad commented, watching as a group of Hanaire visitors, distinguishable by their long fair hair, stopped at the gates to talk to the Custodes who ticked names off their list of invited guests.
“The busiest I have seen it for a long time,” Procella agreed. They slipped past the Hanaireans and walked into the Baillium, the large area inside Heartwood’s walls. The wide path led straight through the scatter of buildings and temporary tents to the Castellum.
“Everyone has come to see the show,” Chonrad murmured. He glanced aside at a large group of Wulfengar knights who sat in front of a tent, swilling ale. Instinctively, his hand fell to the pommel of his sword.
Procella nudged him. “Remember we are here today to talk peace.”
“Sorry.” He let his hand drop. “But it has been a long time since I stood in the same country as a Wulfengar, let alone the same room.”
He looked across at the huge circular Curia, where the Congressus was due to take place after the Veriditas ceremony. It had been a noble effort, he thought, by Heartwood, to try to get as many leaders of the Seven Lands of Laxony, the five lands of Wulfengar, and the lords of Hanaire together to discuss the possibility of a pact. Relations had not been good for some years between the eastern Twelve Lands especially, and things only seemed to be escalating. Heartwood’s Exercitus was being called on more and more to try to keep things quiet on Isenbard’s Wall, and he knew how thin their resources were being stretched. This was a last ditch attempt on Heartwood’s part to try to make peace between the nations.
And he knew Procella was as certain as himself it would fail.
The blue Wulfengar banners waved in the early morning breeze like a flock of small birds hovering above the ground. Chonrad wondered if Procella felt disturbed by the close proximity of all the Laxony and Wulfengar lords. The invitation had specified they were not to bring large armies with them, but each lord had come accompanied by a small contingent of armed men. Having so many knights in such a small area was, he felt, inherently dangerous. He glanced across at Fulco, who pointed his thumb towards the ground with a grimace.
“Did you manage to get a look in the Castellum when you arrived last night?” Procella gestured at the building.
“No.” He fell into step beside her, dodging the swishing tail of a horse as the rider headed for the Porta. “It was dark and my knights were tired after the long journey. We set up the tent and went straight to sleep.” He did not tell her the main reason he had not visited the Temple – that part of him did not want to go in there, did not want to see the Arbor.
Procella gestured for him to follow her. “Come, I shall show you around the Temple.” As she spoke, the sound of a bell rang around the Baillium. Its chime was not harsh on the ears, but it resonated throughout him, deep in his chest.
“Is that the Veriditas beginning?” he asked.
For a moment she looked startled. Then she laughed. “It is odd but I have heard that bell for so many years that now I hardly hear it at all. No, it is not time for the ceremony quite yet. That will start with the Tertius Campana – the third bell.”
“Are you missing anything at the moment?” He was aware each bell marked a specific item in the day’s agenda.
“No.” She turned her face up to the sunshine as they walked. “Usually it would mark the Light Service, but all Services are postponed today for the Congressus.”
The Baillium bustled, filled with knights from the three countries and the Militis, but in spite of the commotion Chonrad found he could not draw his gaze away from the Castellum that reared above them, casting a shadow across a large portion of the grounds. He remembered seeing it so many years ago, this tall honey-coloured building, and he could also remember the fluttering in his stomach then, the excitement and anticipation of being chosen at the Allectus. He had been so certain they would choose him.
He could also recall walking away from the Temple after the ceremony and casting a glance back. He remembered the heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the burning sensation behind his eyelids. Heartwood hadn’t wanted him then; could it really have changed in all those years?
“I cannot take you inside the western part, of course,” said Procella. If she was aware his mood had darkened, she didn’t mention it. “That is for the Militis only. But I can show you around the Temple.”
He did not reply. Instead, he slowed his walk as the path went over a small bridge, and he leaned over the railings and looked down at the river that splashed merrily beneath. “This is not natural, is it?”
“No.” She leaned over next to him. “The channel was dug many years ago to divert water from the Flumen that runs from the mountains, just north of Isenbard’s Wall to the sea. Water is diverted here to feed the Arbor and for the use of the Militis. It runs right through the Castellum, out through the Temple and then down here and under the wall to the east of the Porta.”
The water shimmered on the stones at the bottom of the channel, momentarily blinding him. He blinked, and for a second thought he saw a shadow in the water, like a face next to his, staring up at him. He blinked again, however, and it vanished. Looking up, he saw a cloud covering the face of the sun and realised it must have been the reflection of this he had seen. More clouds lay hunched on the horizon, dark grey and ominous, and he wondered whether they were going to get rain before the day was out.
They continued walking up the road, picking their way through the piles left by the horses, to where the road met the Quad in front of the main entrance to the Castellum. The Quad was a large square of flagstones, used in pleasant weather for some meetings. But it was too small to hold the Congressus, which was going to take place in the more formal meeting place of the Curia, a large and circular ring of oak trees to one side of the Baillium. The Quad was currently full of people waiting for the start of the Veriditas. Procella pushed through them, heading for the large oak doors. At one point, Chonrad felt her warm, strong grip on his hand, as she made sure he followed.
The doors were closed while they prepared the Temple for the ceremony. But nobody closed the doors to the Dux.
“Come on.” She slipped through the gap as one of the Custodes opened the door for her.
“Are you sure?” He looked over his shoulder at the colours of many Wulfengar lords. “Does everyone get a personal tour such as this?”
“No. Only the really important people,” she said. “Well, and you, obviously.”
His retort vanished as he moved through the crack in the doors, which closed behind him, unfortunately leaving Fulco outside. Instantly, he felt as if he had stepped into another world.
The Temple was vast, much bigger than he remembered. With walls constructed from the amber mountain stone, the Temple had a high ceiling that soared above his head in a huge dome. He craned his neck to look up at the roof. The dome was inlaid with thousands of tiny panes of coloured glass that cast sunlight onto the floor in coloured shapes, as if someone had spilled a basket of jewels across the flagstones.
The Temple floor was divided into a series of concentric rings. The outer ring, the one closest to the thick stone walls, was fronted by a wooden screen with shutters, some of which were open to reveal small cubicles, each with a seat, a prayer cushion and a small table. The whole outer ring was formed from a series of these cubicles, presumably, he guessed, where the Militis spent time between the services if they wish to take private prayer or study.
At the moment, however, access to the cubicles was blocked because in the next ring, the widest one, a series of temporary wooden tiers had been erected to form a circle of seats for the ceremony, like an amphitheatre. Usually, he realised, the Temple must seem even bigger without the seating, and he vaguely remembered the wide-open space from the Allectus. This ring was for visitors, and a low wooden fence at waist height hemmed the inner edge of it, to discourage people from going into the central layers.
He followed Procella across the floor to the fence. The small gate that usually stopped visitors from going any farther lay open, so he followed her through it. The next ring was filled with water, and he realised this was the same stream he had crossed outside. The water was obviously fed into the Temple, where it circled the centre and then continued in a small channel outside.
Procella smiled at him and led him across the bridge.
The second-to-last ring was usually for Militis only. It was obviously much smaller than the huge outer circle and littered with cushions, to save the sore knees of those who came to pray. And the object of their prayers stood in the centre circle, lit by the light of the rising sun.
Chonrad stopped, letting Procella walk forward on her own. She touched her fingers to her heart, lips and forehead in a gesture of veneration. His heart pounded. It had been thirty-five years since he had last set foot in the Temple. But immediately he was taken back to the moment he had stood before the Arbor, and the wonder that had filled him then.
The Arbor was an oak tree, the oak tree: the one tree whose roots reached to the centre of the world, and which fed the land with its energy. It was formed, he knew, from the tears of the god Animus, who had cried when he realised he was alone in the universe, and his tears had fallen onto the land and hardened, and formed the Pectoris – the heart of all creation. And the Pectoris had fed the land with Animus’s love, and around the Pectoris grew the Arbor. And since time had begun, the Arbor had protected the land, and because the land and the people were one, the Arbor and the people were one.
He could remember his mother telling the story in front of the fire in the cold winter evenings before he went to the Allectus. He remembered lying on his front, listening to his mother’s soft voice, and he would stare into the flames and imagine what this wonderful tree was like.
Someone touched his arm, and a soft voice said, “What do you think?”
He cleared his throat. “It is smaller than I remember.” He turned and only then realised it wasn’t Procella standing next to him but a smaller knight, with long black hair, brown skin and disturbing eyes the colour of beaten gold.
“This is Silva,” Procella said, indicating the dark-haired knight. “She is the Keeper of the Arbor. Silva, this is Chonrad of Vichton, Lord of Barle.”
“A pleasure,” Silva said, although she didn’t smile, and her golden eyes glinted.
“I apologise if I insulted the Arbor.” He hoped he hadn’t caused an international incident. “I was merely… I mean I remember… The last time I came, it seemed bigger… But then I was a child…”
“Calm yourself,” Silva said in her strange sing-song voice. “There is no offence taken. In fact you are correct – the Arbor would have been bigger when you were a child, you are not mistaken.”
“Is that right? Why?”
Silva arched an eyebrow. “That Question requires a very long and complicated answer.”
Procella looked up into its branches. She’d wrapped her arms around her body in a strangely defensive gesture, looking for all the world, he thought, as if she were frightened, although he couldn’t imagine the brave Dux ever feeling that emotion.
“From what we understand,” Silva said, “the Arbor has been shrinking steadily over the past thousand years. Oculus’s records state the height of the tree as being a good third taller than it is now.” She sighed heavily. “We think it is because of our disconnection with the land.”
“We are taught the land and the Arbor are one, and therefore the people and the Arbor are one, are we not? Well, over the past few hundred years, we have hardly been at one with each other. There has been war after war, followed by floods and famines, and we think this has resulted in a lack of understanding of how to connect with the land, and therefore how to connect to the Arbor.”
Chonrad studied the tree as he thought about her words. Oculus, the writer of the Militis’s Rule and the founder of the stone Temple that eventually became the Castellum, explained in his writings that three hundred years before his birth – over thirteen hundred years before Chonrad was born – there had been a great earthquake, which had caused the old Temple to collapse. He had written in his Memoria that oral tradition stated that early literature had been hidden beneath the rubble, and that maybe important information about how to look after the Arbor had been lost. Oculus had tried to find it, but had not been successful. Was it possible the truth had been buried along with the ancient writings?
He looked over at the two knights who watched him patiently but attentively. “Is that why you called the Congressus?” he asked. “You think the Arbor will continue to shrink unless we finally have peace?”
Procella shrugged. “We do not know. But it is worth a try, do you not think?”
“Are you going to explain your theory at the Congressus?”
“Do you think we should?” Silva asked.
It was Chonrad’s turn to shrug. “It might help the Twelve Lands come to a peaceful decision. Without the impetus of this goal…” He did not finish his sentence, but the serious look on their faces meant they had understood: it might not come to pass.
He looked once more at Silva, with her dark hair and gold eyes. Recognition suddenly struck him. “You are from Komis!” he blurted before he could stop himself.
Silva surveyed him coolly, then nodded. “You are correct. I came to Heartwood at the age of fifteen.”
“She is the only person from Komis to have joined the Militis for twenty years,” said Procella.
Chonrad nodded with interest. His life in Laxony had led him to have very few dealings with the people of Komis, but he knew them to have a varied and colourful past. Before the time of Oculus, the Komis had been a strong, arrogant race. The King of Komis at the time had been powerful and greedy, and his desire for land had led him to mount an invasion on the eastern lands shortly after the Great Quake. In spite of his vast wealth and power amongst his people, however, he was a bad tactician. When, in a bid to show the strength of his forces, he moved his whole army into the Knife’s Edge intending a secret invasion, he met a combined army of eastern knights who swiftly obliterated his troops, leaving barely a person alive. Komis suffered greatly; with nearly all their men of a certain age dead, the population declined swiftly, and the spread of the Pestilence did not help matters. Crop failure in the west was particularly bad during the cold winters of those years, and many also died from hunger. The kingdom shattered, and those who were left withdrew into the great forests to find food and shelter. And there they stayed until the present day, a race of tree-dwellers and guerrilla warriors, as alien to the easterners as a bird underground.
From what he understood, however, the people of Komis had developed a keen understanding of nature through their many generations of living in the forests. He supposed that explained why Silva was Keeper of the Arbor.
Chonrad turned his attention back once more to the Arbor. He felt strangely disappointed. He could not put his finger on it: he wasn’t sure if it was due to the fact that the tree was smaller, or if it was something else… Over the years, since the Allectus, he supposed he had built up the Arbor in his mind to be something magnificent and awe-inspiring, something that would make him gasp and instinctively make the traditional sign of reverence Procella had done.
And yet after his initial feeling of wonder, he felt a kind of dull disenchantment, as you might feel when the clouds block the sun on your wedding day. It was just a tree. An old oak tree. And not a very big one. The one outside his castle at Vichton was nearly as big as the Arbor.
Procella was watching his face. She came over, took his hand and pulled him forwards until he stood right underneath the tree, its overhanging branches like a canopy above his head.
“Touch it,” she whispered. Lifting his hand, she placed it on the bark.
A shock went through him. The trunk was warm. And beneath the bark, his fingers could detect a slight, slow heartbeat. The Pectoris. He looked up at the leaves. There was, of course, no wind inside the Temple. And yet the leaves moved, carrying with them a soft whisper like the sound of the sea.
He looked across at Procella, realisation striking him. “We are just coming out of The Sleep,” he said.
“But the leaves have not fallen.”
“The Arbor’s leaves never fall,” Silva said from behind him.
Her words made a shiver run down his back, and he withdrew his hand from the bark. He felt distinctly unsettled by what he had felt there. All trees were living things, and of course the Arbor was no ordinary tree. But still, feeling that heartbeat… It gave him the impression the Arbor was more than just leaves and trunk and branches. Looking up into its branches, he suddenly wondered if it were aware that he was there, if it could see him, could feel him. Did it remember him from the Allectus? What was it thinking? You should not be here… Why did you come…? He shivered again and took a step backwards. Although the Arbor was at the root of his religion, and although he wore an oak leaf pendant around his neck and said his prayers at night, he did not feel comfortable standing beneath its branches.
Across the western side of the Temple, a door opened in the wall and several people came through. Chonrad knew this was the wall separating the main part of the Temple from the Domus or living area of the Militis, and realised they had to belong to Heartwood.
They crossed the bridge and came over to the Arbor. One of them he knew: a tall, powerful-looking knight, grey-haired, his face marked with scars, looking even more imposing in full battle armour. Last time Chonrad had seen him, it had been on the Wall, during one of the many skirmishes Wulfengar had been carrying out. Now, however, he walked with a pronounced limp, a testament to the reason why he no longer headed the Exercitus.
Valens was Imperator of Heartwood, leader of both the Exercitus and the Castellum, overlord of the whole holy complex – the top rung of the ladder; a truly powerful position, but a difficult one, Chonrad thought, for a knight used to a life out in the open, in almost constant battle. He wondered how Valens coped with his disability and his confinement to the building. Was he relieved after a life spent on the road? Or did he itch to get back out there?
The Heartwood leader came forward and held out his hand. “Lord Barle,” he said in his deep, gruff voice. “It is good to see you once again.” He closed his hand on Chonrad’s in a firm grip.
“And you, Valens.” Chonrad placed his left hand on the Imperator’s wrist, and Valens did the same.
“Thank you for coming.” Valens released his hand and turned to face the tree, making, as he did so, the same gesture Procella had: putting his hand to his heart, his lips and his forehead.
Chonrad nodded. “You are welcome.”
“I just hope it will not have been in vain.” Valens sighed.
“You do not have hopes for the Congressus?”
Valens looked him in the eye. “Do you?”
Chonrad said nothing.
“As I thought,” Valens said gruffly. He turned to the knight who waited patiently beside him. “Have you met our Abbatis, Dulcis?”
“No.” Chonrad came forward and held out his hand. He knew she was in charge of the Domus. “It is a pleasure to meet you, my lady.”
“And I you.” Dulcis took his hand. She was shorter than Procella, but taller than Silva, and her hair, like Valens’s, was grey and hung loose to her waist like a sheet of metal. She wore only light leather armour covered by a knee-length white tunic embroidered with a single oak leaf. “I have heard much about you,” she said. “The famous Lord Barle. You have a reputation as a great knight and, more importantly to us today, as a skilled diplomat.”
“Peace must be our ultimate aim.”
“That is not everyone’s belief,” she said wryly. She did not say the name Wulfengar; she did not have to.
“I will do my best to aid today’s discussions,” he said.
“Then that is the best we can hope for.” She smiled at him. “I understand we made the mistake many years ago, of turning you away from the Allectus.”
Chonrad looked sharply at Procella. She returned his gaze openly, raising an eyebrow. Dulcis caught the look and shook her head. “Nobody told me, Lord Barle, I make it our business to research the lives of those who come to Heartwood. Our records state you came to us at the age of seven.” She touched his arm. “It was our loss.” She looked over at Valens. “You were not the first – and will not be the last – mistake we have made in choosing the Militis.”
He wanted to ask her what she meant, but she was already turning away. Her comment flattered him, although it did not completely remove the resentment he carried deep within him towards Heartwood. It was an old wound that had never healed properly, and it was too late to do anything about it now. He wondered to whom she was referring when she mentioned making a mistake in choosing the Militis. Was it someone he had already met? He would probably never find out, but her words intrigued him.
Dulcis looked up through the dome at the sun’s position in the sky. “It will not be long until the Tertius Campana,” she observed. “We must bring in our guests.”
Silva stayed by the Arbor, but the rest of them walked back towards the outer ring. As they passed over the channel of water, Chonrad glanced down. Once again, he was surprised to see a shadow beneath the surface, a dark shape moving along the bottom of the channel.
“Are there fish in there?” he asked.
Procella stopped and looked back at him. “There is a grille at the top of the channel where it is siphoned off from the Flumen, but occasionally one slips through.”
“That must be it then.” He dismissed the frisson of unease that made his spine tingle. He had more important things to worry about than shadows. Today could be a beginning, the start of a new peace treaty, the commencement of a new historical era.
Or it could be the end. But he refused to dwell on that.
The Custodes pulled back the huge oak doors, and people filtered in. More Custodes took their places at intervals along the tiers. He knew they would have been present at the Veriditas anyway, but even so, he guessed their strategic placing had more to do with an attempt to keep an eye on the guests than out of a genuine wish to spread out.
Fulco came through, looking anxiously for him, his relief evident when he saw his overlord. His bodyguard took his duties seriously, especially during a time when their enemies were in such close proximity.
The guests filed in, and gradually the tiers filled up. Not everyone who had come to Heartwood would be able to attend the ceremony; there wasn’t enough space for all the contingent of each lord, so the leaders of each of the Twelve Lands, the Hanaire lords and their closest followers were brought in first, and then the rank and file took the remaining spaces.
Chonrad had been standing by the doorway, in the shadows, but now Procella beckoned to him. He and Fulco made their way around the tiers to a space a few levels up that had been reserved for them amongst the knights from Barle. She left them there and walked to the front row, where the most senior members of the Heartwood Militis were waiting.
He looked around the Temple at the people seated on the tiers. Although each person sat with people of his or her own land, the Militis had been insightful enough to spread the three countries around the room. Not that he expected trouble during the Veriditas. Whatever tensions there were between the Twelve Lands, they were all followers of Animus, and none wished to defile the Temple by bringing politics and war into its midst.
The Tertius Campana rang from somewhere in the western half of the Castellum, reverberating around the wooden tiers and the stone walls, sounding deep inside his chest.
Gradually, everyone in the Temple fell quiet.