Paul Kearney: The Heretic Kings

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Paul Kearney The Heretic Kings
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    The Heretic Kings
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Paul Kearney


The Heretic Kings

WHAT WENT BEFORE.

It is over half a millennium since the birth of the Blessed Saint Ramusio, the man who brought the light of true belief into the western world. The empire of the Fimbrians, which once spanned the wide continent of Normannia, is only a dim memory. Their empire has been transformed into a series of powerful kingdoms, and the Fimbrian Electorates have remained isolated within their borders for over four centuries, indifferent to events beyond them.

But now things are taking place which cannot be ignored. Aekir, the Holy City on the eastern frontier and seat of the High Pontiff Macrobius, head of the Church, has fallen to the teeming armies of the heathen Merduks, who have been pressing on the eastern frontier of the Ramusian kingdoms for decades.

Caught up in the fury of its fall, Corfe Cear-Inaf flees westwards, one of the few of its defenders who has survived. On the refugee-choked road he befriends an old man the Merduks have blinded, and finds out that he is none other than Macrobius himself, who escaped unrecognized by the troops of Shahr Baraz, the Merduk general. Corfe is nursing his own private grief: he left his wife in Aekir, and believes her dead. Unknown to him, however, she survived the assault and was captured and sent to the court of the Sultan as spoils of war to join his harem. Corfe and Macrobius trek westwards along with thousands of others, seeking sanctuary in the impregnable fortress of Ormann Dyke, the west’s last line of defence after Aekir.

In the meantime, across the continent, the mariner Richard Hawkwood returns from a voyage to find that in this time of fear and uncertainty the militant Churchmen of the Inceptine Order are cracking down on anyone in the great port-capital of Abrusio, first city of the kingdom of Hebrion, who is either a user of magic, or a foreigner. Since half of Hawkwood’s crew are not native to Hebrion, they are hauled off to await the pyre. Hebrion’s king, Abeleyn, tries to do what he can to limit the scale of the purge in the raucous old port, and at the same time is involved in a battle of wills with his senior Churchman, Himerius, who has instigated it, and who has also asked the Church to send him aid in the form of two thousand Knights Militant, the fanatical military arm of the Church.

The wizard Bardolin is also affected by this purge. He befriends a young female shape-shifter, rescuing her from one of the city patrols, but it seems likely to be only a temporary reprieve. Then his old teacher, the King’s wizardly (and proscribed) advisor, the mage Golophin, tells him of a possible way out. The Hebrian King is sponsoring a westward voyage of exploration and colonization, and its ships will have room for a sizable contingent of the Dweomer-folk who at this moment are being hunted down across the kingdom.

The captain of the expedition is none other than Richard Hawkwood, who has been blackmailed into taking on the mission by an ambitious minor noble, Murad of Galiapeno. Murad is after a kingdom of his own, and he believes that there is a lost continent somewhere across the expanse of the Great Western Ocean. He possesses an ancient rutter recording a long-ago voyage to such a continent. He does not tell King Abeleyn, or Hawkwood, that the earlier westward voyage ended in death and madness, with a werewolf aboard ship.

The expedition sets sail, Hawkwood having said goodbye to his volatile, nobly born mistress, the lady Jemilla, and to his wan, hysterical wife Estrella. But the ships are burdened with one last, unwelcome passenger. The Inceptine cleric Ortelius takes ship with the explorers, no doubt so that the Church can keep an eye on this unorthodox voyage.

Meanwhile; in the east, events are proceeding apace. Corfe and Macrobius finally arrive at Ormann Dyke, where Macrobius is recognized and welcomed and Corfe is once more an officer in the Torunnan army. The Merduk Sultan, Aurungzeb, orders an immediate assault on the dyke against the better judgement of the old general, Shahr Baraz. Two successive attacks fail, the second in large part due to the efforts of Corfe himself. When the Sultan orders a third attack, his orders communicated via a homonculus, Shahr Baraz refuses outright and kills the homonculus, thus crippling and disfiguring Aurungzeb’s court mage, Orkh. Shahr Baraz then flees into the steppes of the east, and campaigning comes to an end for the winter. Ormann Dyke is safe, for the present. Promoted to colonel by the dyke’s commander, Martellus the Lion, Corfe is to escort Macrobius to the Torunnan capital, Torunn, where the old Pontiff has now taken on new stature.

For the Church has split down the middle. In Macrobius’ absence the Prelates of the Five Kingdoms have elected the hardline Prelate of Hebrion, Himerius, as the new Pontiff, and he refuses to accept that Macrobius is alive. Matters come to a head at the Conclave of Kings in Vol Ephrir, which all the monarchs of Ramusian Normannia attend. At this conference, three kings-Abeleyn of Hebrion, Mark of Astarac (who is Abeleyn’s ally and soon to be his brother-in-law) and Lofantyr of embattled Torunna-recognize Macrobius as the rightful Pontiff, whereas every other Ramusian ruler on the continent sides with Himerius. This produces a religious schism of vast proportions, and the prospect of fratricidal war amongst the Ramusian states at a time when the Merduk threat has never been worse. But that is not the only event of the moment which occurs at the conclave.

The Fimbrians, so long isolated, have sent envoys to the meeting to offer their troops to any state which needs them-for a price. The hard-pressed Lofantyr of Torunna immediately takes the envoys up on their offer, and requests that a Fimbrian force be sent to aid his fought-out troops at Ormann Dyke. But Abeleyn is uneasy, sure that the Fimbrians have a secret agenda of their own; dreams of rekindling their empire, perhaps.

As the conclave breaks up in acrimony and hostility, Abeleyn receives another notable piece of information. His newly acquired mistress, the lady Jemilla, is, she informs him, pregnant with his child. Abeleyn sets out for home knowing that the Church has done its best to take over his kingdom in his absence, and that he has a bastard heir on the way.

While Normannia is riven by war and religious discord, Hawkwood’s two ships are sailing steadily westwards. Murad, to Hawkwood’s annoyance, takes a couple of the female passengers as servants and bedmates. One of the pair is Bardolin’s ward, the young shape-shifter, Griella. She hates Murad, but something in her responds to his cruelty as he responds to the strange feral nature he senses within her. Bardolin is both jealous and afraid of the consequences of their liaison, but there is nothing he can do.

The ship survives a terrible storm but is blown far off course. When a calm ensues, Hawkwood calls upon the talents of Pernicus, a weather-worker, to bring them a wind, despite the objections of the Inceptine, Ortelius, who insists that the voyage is cursed. The wind comes, but not for long. Pernicus is found butchered in the hold, his wounds inflicted by what seems to be some sort of beast.

As the ships crawl westwards they lose contact with each other, and Hawkwood does not know if his other vessel is still afloat or sunk. There is enough trouble to occupy him on his own ship, however. His first mate is killed next, and a cabin-boy disappears. Bardolin, sure that Griella is behind the killings, confronts her, but becomes convinced that she is innocent of them, leaving him baffled. The ship comes to resemble a prison, with guards everywhere and a mutinous, terrified crew. Only Hawkwood’s authority and Murad’s savage discipline keep passengers and crew in line.

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