“Jomun sends for you. It’s time.”
“It’s time when I say it is. We’re almost done here anyway.”
“Despite Jomun’s proclamations, I am no one’s lord. Not yet.”
Toric Valayn slumped back, shifting ever so slightly from left to right to try and find comfort in the old beechwood chair, despite knowing it was folly. The sweet smell of exotic oils drifted to his nostrils as a trio of hooded women massaged them into his hands. They muttered quietly and earnestly to themselves as they worked.
He’d told them again and again that his hands were beyond help, but the women, from the local sect, insisted that it was the tradition at times like these.
His eye twitched ever so slightly just at the thought of the word. To his mind tradition and religion, two things he now found thrust upon him, had done little good in the world in his lifetime. Countless lives had been lost seeking divinity. Scores of cities razed in the names of spectres unseen. Untold waste in the name of grace.
The church held sway over the land of Seta, from the heights of the capital in the west, to the depths of The Scar, all the way into the east to Ostar, Toric’s home. Their hold was remarkable given that, in his teachings, Toric had learned that the church, the ‘Scions of Kerala’ as they now liked to be known, had practically been run out of the capital centuries ago. Their reputation, a laughable mess of constant failure.
And yet now, all these years later, year after year, they convince thousands to die –willingly– in their name, in search of someone that they deem ‘worthy’ of ruling Seta.
It drove Toric mad that now he, someone who had been immune and sheltered from their drivel his whole life was now being, for want of a better word, forced into making the damned–
“Toric?” A new voice cooed in his ear.
His eyes popped open and quickly found rest in the soft features of the woman who had spoken.
“You’re clenching your fists again. The sisters say, again, it is hard for them to work.” She lay a hand softly on Toric’s and, suddenly aware of the tension, he relaxed.
“Sorry, my head was elsewhere.”
“Are you alright?” Leora asked as she sat down beside him.
He wanted to say no.
He wanted to grab her by the hand, say to damnation with the whole affair, and disappear into the west. With her. Never to be seen again. And yet…
“I am. There’s just…a lot to deal with. A lot of moving parts.”
She smiled softly at him, like always. “It’s a lot for any man to bear. It’s a good thing then that you aren’t just any man.”
Leora was just seventeen, several years his junior, but she carried a maturity that belied her years. In recent months she’d had to pick him up and put him back together more often than he could count. In her eyes, deep brown and endless, Toric saw the longing, saw the same desire to run.
But it was no good. There was no running from this.
After a long silence, Toric pulled his hands away from the sisters and placed them over Leora’s. “It’s almost time. If it’s okay, I need a few moments alone.”
Leora stood and, despite their protestations, ushered the Sisters out of the room.
Toric waited to hear the sound of the door closing behind them, but in its place, a lingering silence.
“What if I asked you not to go?”
She spoke so softly the question barely carried across the room.
Toric remained facing away from her. He had prayed, ironic though it may be, that she would not ask that of him. In the face of it all, she had always supported the voyage.
Her support was the only thing, the only barrier, keeping him from straying from the course.
And yet now, in this last quiet moment, she faltered.
If he were to look at her again, in this moment, he too would falter.
He knew that. Deep inside.
And so he didn’t look back.
For what felt like an age he didn’t even speak.
But then he could bear the silence no more.
“I’ll be marked, and it won’t be much of a life.” Toric jumped to his feet. “But if that is the price to pay then I’ll–”
She was gone.
He knew not when she had left, and he doubted she had heard a word.
Toric lingered at the door and thought for a moment of going after her. But doubt began to creep at the corners of his mind.
Perhaps it is a sign. Perhaps she didn’t know what she was saying? Toric thought to himself.
Having dissuaded himself from further action and resigned himself to his course, Toric gently pushed the door closed. On a nearby table was a jug of aged spirit, and some glasses.
Thinking the situation appropriate, Toric bypassed the glasses and took a sizeable swig from the jug.
He winced as it burned its way down, but in its wake, clarity.
It’s for the best, he thought. A marked life is no life at all. I couldn’t do that to her. It wouldn’t be right.
At his desk, he found his Letter of Last Thought. Traditionally, it was a parting gift to family members deemed by the Scions to impart comfort and reassurance, since being able to speak to family was forbidden on the day of the voyage.
Toric’s letter had remained blank since the day a doddering old Scion had thrust it under his nose. He had many a time thought of simply copying the one his father had left word for word, but that would require reading it, which was something he had not done in over ten years, and vowed never to again.
If he were to do it, it had to be his own words.
Taking another swig of the spirit, he sat down and picked up the quill from the table.
I know that no words I write here will give you comfort. I know you need not for comfort, for you have lived this moment time and again. What I will say is this: Too many times you have–
The quill slipped from his grip. At first, he thought his hand must have been wet from the liquor, but as he stared at it, he saw the tremor. Felt it.
They had started several weeks earlier, during one of the final rounds of combat training. The tremor had loosened his grip on his sword just enough that it was knocked from his hand and gashed his arm. The wound had only just healed.
Whether the tremors were borne from fear or some kind of malady, it was not clear. What had become clear, was the treatment.
Before he could reach for the jug, there was a knock on the door.
His heart leapt at the thought that it might be Leora returning to him, but then his mood soured when he remembered that she had never knocked. Not once. Ever.
Whoever it was, they knocked again.
“I wish to be left alone!” Toric shouted over his shoulder.
There was a silence and then a muffled voice through the timber.
“Surely you would not deny your own mother?”
Toric raced to the door, and no sooner had he torn it open, he had pulled his mother inside and slammed it behind her.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Toric said, exasperated.
“And yet here I am,” his mother said with sly smile.
“If they find you here they’ll–”
“Oh, I think we both know exactly what they’d do. Not a thing. They wouldn’t dare.”
Toric had little reason to doubt that. Esther Valayn was a fierce woman and had a reputation in town as such. Married three times, abandoned three times. Five children raised alone. Few would be game to raise their voice to her and those that did learned quickly not to.
He was glad to be her son. Partly because that mean he was one of the few in her life that was given leniency.
“They’ve got you dressed up don’t they?” Esther said, looking him up and down.
“You’re telling me.”
“Lot more trouble than they went to for your father.”
It was rare she spoke of him.
“I’ve been in here for hours. It dark out yet?”
“Almost. Jomun’s been barking up and down the docks all afternoon.”
Toric leaned back against the wall and sighed. “Let him bark.”
Esther furrowed her brow. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t ‘nothing’ me, Tor,” she said. She stared at him for a few seconds, hands on hips, and then she too sighed. “You don’t have to go.”
“Not you too.”
Esther smiled. “I knew that girl would come to her senses.”
“I’m going. She deserves better than a marked man. A marked life.”
“And you’re decided on that?”
“I am. Father went, and so must I.”
For the first time in a long time, Toric saw his mother’s hardened exterior falter. “Your father left me. My father left me. My brother left me. Don’t make me stand by another empty grave. I won’t do it.”
Toric placed a reassuring hand on his mother’s cheek and smiled. “I won’t.”
“I’m coming back.”
Toric could tell from the look in her eyes that she didn’t believe him. His hand began to tremble once more, and without a word, she noticed and took his hand in hers.
“Find Leora, and tell her. Tell the others too.”
The tremor abated.
Esther’s eyes brightened. “You’re coming back.”
Toric nodded. “How are the others?”
“Oblivious to the whole thing, they’ve gotten very caught up in the festival.”
Esther sighed. “Maybe it is good you’ll be gone for a while. I think you might be a bad influence.”
Toric laughed. “What’s happened now?”
“He seemed to think today of all days would be the perfect time to fight the Ulvar boy again.”
“Ah,” Toric said, “did he win this time at least?”
“He bit the boy if you can believe it.”
“Well, he didn’t get that from me.”
“I should hope not.”
“I’ll talk to him.”
A distant bell began to ring, slow at first and then increasing in tempo.
“That is an angry Jomun if ever I’ve heard one. I think it’s time.”
Toric kissed his mother on the forehead and wrapped her in a tight embrace.
“This is not goodbye. I’ll be out soon.”
The smell of smoke wafted up to greet Toric as he emerged into the cool afternoon air, and the low setting sun cast the Bay of Amito in a hazy golden glow. From the rise, he could see nearly the entirety of the village, from the market in the foothills, to the houses, down to the docks where a tall-ship awaited him, it’s shadow thrown long over the water.
Ostar was normally an ordinary fishing village, indistinguishable from myriad other settlements scattered around Seta’s eastern coastline, but in times like this, it transformed.
Music could be heard from every corner. Ceremonial fires burned through the night giving light to a celebration that seemed to have no end. Food was plentiful and wine flowed like rivers. Children ran to and fro, caught up in whatever imaginary adventures the elder’s stories had inspired in them.
Despite the disdain Toric had for the voyages, he couldn’t deny the festivities turned Ostar into a nicer place to be. Up until the departure at least. After that, it was often a different story.
Toric made his way down the stone path towards the docks, and before long people began to notice him. He would admit that it’d be hard to miss him. Between the animal pelts and heavy red coats, he stood out like a sore thumb.
One after the other, the people of Ostar held a closed fist over their hearts and bowed their head in acknowledgement of what Toric was setting out to do. He tried to wave them off but none would have it. Instead, they took it as an invitation to follow and filed in behind him as he walked. By the time he reached the rocky shore of the bay, Toric had amassed quite the following.
“You’re late,” Jomun blustered as he came plodding across the rocks.
“And yet I’m right on time.” Toric took silent pleasure in watching Jomun’s face turn a dark shade of red as he tried, without much success, to contain his anger.
“We’re nearly an hour behind schedule because of you! If you’re not on the water before sundown, you’ll–”
“Probably die all the same as if I’d left six hours ago. In fact…”
Toric’s attention was pulled away from the portly Master of Ceremonies as he spied Thom, his second in command, running headlong towards them along the shore.
“What is it, Thom?” Toric asked, motioning for him to speak away from Jomun’s ear.
“It’s Arec,” Thom whispered. “Your mother says he’s run off.”
Toric sighed. “Of course he has.”
“She thought you might know where he would be.”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea. I need a favour of you.”
“What do you need?”
Toric motioned over his shoulder at Jomun. “I need you to stall him.”
Thom’s eyes widened. “Tor, I don’t–”
“Thanks, Thom. You’re a good man.”
With a slap on the arm, Toric turned and jogged off through the throng of people that had gathered around them. He’d gotten far enough away that he couldn’t make out the excuse Thom had given for his sudden exit, but he could certainly hear that it was far from satisfactory to Jomun’s ears.
The dried grasses brushed near knee height as Toric passed between the endless rows of stone. For all their blustering about tradition, the Scion’s seemed to care little for any of those who were lost in pursuit of their glory. The Hollow, as it had become known, was perched high on a cliff overlooking Ostar and the Bay of Amito. It was a graveyard in name only, for no bodies were buried there. Only an unending spread of stone slabs, each marking a voyager who had never returned.
Many headstones lay broken on the ground, their families having long given up the will to care for a patch of dirt that brought them only sorrow. As Toric headed deeper into the Hollow, closer to the cliff’s edge, he saw the grass begin to clear, and a small path was once more visible.
At its end, Toric spied Arec sitting in a small clearing. Around him sat at least a dozen, well-kept headstones. The Valayn family plot, such as it was.
Their mother had stopped visiting, and hold told all the children to do the same. But Arec still went every now and then and cleared the grass away, pulled the weeds, and gave the stones a clean if the need presented itself.
“Come along now. Everyone’s waiting.” He tried his best to sound forceful, but kind.
Arec offered no response.
Toric crouched down beside Arec and still he didn’t move. A gust of wind ruffled Arec’s sandy blonde hair and blew it away from his face revealing reddened cheeks. While he knew he would never admit it to his older brother, the wet patches in the dirt below told Toric he’d been crying.
“Mother tells me you’ve been fighting with the Goldsberry boy again.”
“Arec look at me.”
Almost reluctantly, Arec turned his head to look at Toric.
“What’s going on?” Toric asked, placing a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“He said you were going to die,” Arec muttered. “That everyone dies.”
Toric smiled. “Everyone dies someday Arec. It’s how things are.”
“But the boat…”
“Listen, I have no plans on dying anytime soon.”
“I promise. When I get back, we’re going to have a lot of good years together you and I. Don’t you worry about that.”
The last words almost caught in Toric’s throat. It was hard to lie to his brother like that, but he couldn’t tell him the truth. He had to leave him with some kind of hope, something to look forward to. It was only fair.
Arec’s eyes lit up. “Will you find Father?”
Little Arec had always held a belief in his heart that their father was alive. It had been some years since he left on his own voyage, and while Arec Tormanus Valayn the Second was a seemingly indestructible mountain of a man, Toric found it hard to harbour the same hope.
Toric smiled. “If he’s there, I’ll find him.”
He figured he might as well go all in on hope.
A long silence fell on the pair, with Arec beaming up at his brother, and Toric becoming increasingly uncomfortable in the lies he’d just told.
“That reminds me,” Toric said finally. “I have something for you.”
He reached into his satchel, produced a small dagger, complete with belt and scabbard and held it out before Arec. “This was father’s. He gave it to me before he left. Now I want you to have it.”
Arec wordlessly grabbed the dagger from Toric’s open palms and began to pore over the ornate weapon in awe.
“Now,” Toric said, prying his brother’s attention away from the dagger, “while I’m away, you’re going to be the man of the house. That means it’ll be up to you to protect Mother and your sisters.”
“Even Marta?” Arec asked, scrunching up his nose.
Toric laughed. “Yes, even Marta. Now stand up.”
Arec did as instructed, and Toric strapped the dagger belt around his waist. “You keep that close now, okay?”
Arec nodded eagerly.
“And don’t use it on the Goldsberry boy. For Mother’s sake.”
Toric laughed as Arec looked visibly disappointed.
“Okay, come on now. We have to go.”
“Sorry I’m late,” Toric said as he shuffled past Jomun and took his place on the docks.
Jomun was steaming. “I’ve got half a mind to have you marked for this.”
“Let’s just get this over with, all we?”
Jomun scowled and trudged over to the dais at the end of the docks.
To Toric’s right, the twenty-three other men that would be making the voyage with him waited in the shadow of their ship, the Reliance. He gave them a reassuring nod, but many were just staring into the ether and the gesture went largely unnoticed.
A bell rung loud and clear in the evening air.
Jomun inhaled, audibly, and then he began.
“Kind folk of Ostar! Of Seta, the Lone Jewel Isle! For centuries our people have ventured into the Unending Sea. From every port, from every shoreline, thousands have set off in search of distant shorelines. In search of truth. In search of a King.”
And for centuries they’ve been sending young men to the slaughter, Toric thought, with no hope of return, let alone hope of becoming ‘King’.
“The Line of Gray, is gone,” Jomun continued. “This in an inescapable truth. With the passing of Little Eustace Gray now eight hundred years gone, rest his soul, Seta was plunged into darkness. The…”
Toric laughed under his breath. The Line of Gray, rulers of Seta for a millennia, went up in smoke after the entire family was trapped inside their palace during a feast and enemies, believed to have been aligned with the Obud, razed it to the ground.
Little Eustace only survived because he was a shit of a child and had run away because he missed out on the last of the lemon bars. So poor Little Eustace, once they dragged him home kicking and screaming, was thrust onto a burning throne and, at only ten, did little to inspire confidence in the people of Seta. His reign, by all accounts an unmitigated disaster, came to a somewhat apt end when he tripped while playing with a ribbon, fell into a well and drowned.
And so ended the thousand-year rule of the Line of Gray.
“….solidarity. For too long our land has been at the mercy of imposters, pretenders to the throne. Men and women too comfortable in their own importance, too eager to please the money men. Too tainted to rule. It is for this very…”
It wouldn’t matter if they could cure the blind, or walk on water, if their name wasn’t ‘Gray’, the church would find any name under the sun to call them and any reason to discredit their legitimacy. History would indeed show some truly terrible leaders in the Gray’s wake; Oluf Gammon was known for hanging wives who he’d suspected of being unfaithful, whether they had been or not and Tarek Cozort, a banker who’d bought his was to the throne, made his name burning down entire towns that couldn’t keep up with their taxes.
But they weren’t all bad. From everything Toric had heard, Hyron Tollemach, Seta’s current King, was a genuinely benevolent man who had taken great strides in uniting the four corners of Seta in recent years. He was generally well liked from coast to coast, and yet here they were, seeking to usurp him.
“…Tonight, these brave men before you set out on a journey to end our long nightmare. But as we are short on time”–Jomun cast a sideways glance at Toric–“I think it best we get right to it.”
The bell tolled once more.
The sun was now well behind the mountain ranges and darkness was encroaching on Ostar.
Jomun stepped down from the dais and stood before Toric and the others.
“If anyone wishes to not make the voyage, you may speak now.”
A long silence fell on the dock.
Toric scanned the crowd and saw his mother, with Arec and his sisters at her side. She met his gaze, but her face was still. Further along, his eyes met Leora’s.
He could put an end to it.
Right then and there.
Her eyes begged him to. Pleaded.
But he had made his choice. And it was only then that he realised it was now, in fact, his choice to go.
Toric offered a gentle smile and a subtle, reassuring nod.
In reply, Leora covered her face and ran.
Before long, she’d disappeared behind the crowd and off into the deepening night.
Toric’s heart sank as he realised he would never see her again.
He would never again see the light in her eyes.
Jomun cleared his throat, and the silence along with it.
“Alright, then let us–”
For a second Toric thought the voice his own, a sign of his heart betraying his head, but he soon realised it had come from further down the line. He glanced to his left and saw Lars Holbrook on his hands and knees.
He was a boy of just sixteen, the son of the local baker and by everyone’s estimations, he was far too young to be of any use on any voyage, let alone one as critical as this. Despite this, he had pushed to be given a spot. Said his faith had called him to the sea, to distant lands.
And now it seemed, in the final hour, that young Lars’ faith had left without him, leaving behind a quivering wreck of a child on his knees in front of his Gods.
“Do you wish to stay?” Jomun said, looming over Lars like an oak.
Lars nodded. Tears ran and dripped from the end of his nose.
“Very well.” Jomun nodded to two guards standing nearby. “Hold him.”
The men latched onto Lars’ arms and held him. They didn’t so much need to restrain him as keep him upright, the boy had gone limp.
“The voyage is no trifling matter, and many before you have made this choice,” Jomun started. As he spoke, he walked over to a nearby fire pit and produced a long metal rod. At its end, a brand. “Lars Holbrook, from this day until your last day, know that you are marked. Though no one here will begrudge you your decision, it is not up to them, nor you, nor I. The Gods will pass their own judgement in time. I pray that Kerala finds favour in your heart.”
Jomun pressed the tip of the brand onto Lars’ face and held it there.
Lars didn’t scream.
Toric thought he must have passed out instantly, but after forcing himself to look, he saw that Lars was now fighting through the pain.
Such was the silence that Toric could hear the flesh sizzling, and popping under the hot metal.
When it was over, the guards released Lars and he refused to fall. He turned to look at Toric, cheek burning red, a diamond shape indent clear in his cheek in spite of the bleeding. With great effort, Lars raised a shaking fist and held it over his heart and then nodded to Toric.
“I…”–Toric’s words caught in his throat at the gesture, perhaps he had misjudged the boy–“I release you from my servitude, Gods protect you, Lars Holbrook.”
No sooner had Toric finished, than Lars crumpled into a pile on the dock. Several people, including Lars’ father, rushed from the crowd and quickly ushered him from sight.
“If everyone else is at peace with their decision,” Jomun said, having now returned to the dais, “then let us continue. Toric. Come forth.”
(Stay tuned...there’s more to come.)