The spider rotated slowly in mid-air, suspended from the window frame by a single, perfect, thread. The multitude of eyes that pitted the tiny creature’s face were surveying the room, taking in its dimensions and intricacies, and plotting paths across the vast gulf of space. The arachnid gazed at a chandelier, spun a little and regarded the blurred outline of a large firescree candle and, aided by a gust of wind, continued to rotate. Now it stared back at itself through a gleaming mirror, rimmed with iron and gold.
The spider was not alone.
Behind it, visible now in the mirror, stood a young woman. Her dark, shoulder-length hair was being blown around carelessly by the draught from her chamber’s open window. She flinched with surprise when she noticed the spider, before brushing the arachnid away and out of the window with irritation.
She was late for her history class, again.
Already she could hear the sigh of her lecturer as she arrived at the Hanging Galleries fifteen minutes after the lesson had started. She could see, clearly, the decrepit professor who had taught her for years – ever since she’d come here, to Ilyrium – gazing at her in disappointment because she hadn’t finished her essay on the formation of Gearis, or the Firescree Wars, or the construction of the Great South Road.
“Zara,” he would groan, his voice dripping with dismay. “You are blessed with great intelligence. If only you would apply yourself, you might one day reach the same level of academia as your father.”
She’d heard it all before.
Anyway, she knew the history of Gearis. She’d known it word for word since she had been five. Now, thirteen years later, she was beginning to realise that sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you know something, only if other people know you know it. This irritated her. Why should she have to demonstrate her abilities to the masters and professors who occupied Ilyrium’s spires and galleries like belligerent ghouls? She knew, and that was the most important thing.
Nonetheless, she recounted the history to herself, just to make sure.
She remembered her childhood, sitting on her father’s knee by the fireplace that had taken up nearly a whole wall of her family’s apartments in Enval. He’d told her about the Parchment Crusades which had laid waste to the North and South, and forced them to join with the Western cities of the continent.
“That,’ he had explained to her, ‘was when Gearis as we know it was first formed”.
Gearis. The word meant ‘home’ in the ancient runic languages of the people who had inhabited the island centuries before. Those people were gone now, but fragments of their language remained. Gearis remained.
Then, a hundred years later, the lawless, barbaric mountain tribes of the East had banded together under Bendrick, the Usurper, and waged war against the cities and castles of Gearis. It had been a war lasting years, and a war Bendrick had thought that he was sure to win.
For the strange, crimson flecked stone which burnt for days, and provided the light and for Gearis’s many cities only occurred in the Eastern lands which Bendrick now controlled. Threatened with a bitter winter from which they had no protection, the people of Gearis were certain to surrender.
Or so Bendrick thought.
Zara smiled to herself as she retraced this part of the story. Her mother had often told her the tales of Randor, the saviour of Gearis, whilst she lay in bed at night. Randor’s dealings with the duplicitous ocean-folk, his pursuit of beautiful princesses across forests and mountains, his battles with savage barbarians who wore the skin of their victims – Zara knew all of these stories and more. They had transported her away from the small, dingy apartment that her father had rented in Enval, and into magical, distant lands where anything had seemed possible.
But Randor’s fantastical exploits in faraway lands were not important to her now. No, she was interested in his adventures closer to home.
Realising that Gearis would be devastated by the impending winter, the great adventurer Randor had sworn to help. He journeyed far and wide – from Iske in the Frozen North, to Old Southtown in the South, and across treacherous enemy lines to the Eastern fortress-city of Vesht.
Eventually Randor’s quest had proven fruitful. Just south of the Drowning Fort, the ancient keep where traitors to the kingdom were put to death, Randor uncovered a long-forgotten mine. Presumably constructed by the ancient peoples who had ruled the island centuries before, and left abandoned after their sudden, mysterious departure, the mine offered salvation for Gearis.
Randor ascertained that the mine had been built to dig for the same stone now hoarded by Bendrick’s eastern armies. What Randor didn’t realise, however, was that the firescree from this excavation was far purer than its Eastern equivalent. This stone would burn not for days, but for years.
He returned jubilantly to Gearis, bringing with him a sample of the firescree. Now that Gearis was prepared for the winter, the lords of Enval, Lapisport and Iske were able to raise mighty armies, whilst the Seachieftains of the Axis assembled colossal fleets of war-barges and narrow-boats.
Understandably alarmed by this sudden show of force, Bendrick gathered the leaders of the mountain tribes in the Eastern stronghold of Ocealis. He instructed them to raise their respective troops and march towards Enval, the then capital of Gearis. Although the mountain tribes were many, they were also undisciplined, and dozens abandoned the campaign during the long march westwards. Despite this, and the protestations of the chiefs, Bendrick ordered the advance to continue. If he could only reach Enval in time, he reasoned, he would be able to avoid facing the assembled armies of the North, West and South in a battle he was well aware would spell doom for his rapidly diminishing and demoralised forces.
As Bendrick marched onwards towards Enval, events were moving within the city’s walls. Randor assumed command of the assembled armies of Gearis, and the construction of a new city intended to honour him began in earnest.
That new city, Zara thought to herself, is where I’m standing now.
She wondered if Randor had stood in this very room and stared out of the window, glimpsing Iske far-off in the distance, as she had done a thousand times. The thought made her feel a part of history.
She’d been so caught up in her recollections that she’d forgotten that she was already late for her lecture as it was. Hastily picking up her books and scrolls, Zara threw on the long, crimson cloak that denoted her status in Ilyrium as one of the daughters of the Elite, and ran for the door of her chamber.
As Zara stumbled down the corridor that connected her chamber to the Schools of Dawn and Dusk, and the Hanging Galleries beyond, she attempted to calm herself. Judging by the sundial that stood on her windowsill, she was only half an hour late. Zara tried to convince herself that the professor wouldn’t notice her absence, and failed. It was impossible to stay invisible in Ilyrium with her family ties.
Struggling past a throng of students who were blocking the narrow corridor, Zara retreated back into her memories and her knowledge.
The winter which Bendrick had hoped would ravage Gearis came just as the Eastern tribes reached the walled city. Although Bendrick’s sieges and raids of the outer towns and castles were successful, he soon realised that his forces could simply not face both the armies of Gearis and the biting, whispering cold which surrounded them on all sides.
Within Enval, Randor continued to marshal his forces ready to defend the capital. Great walls were constructed around the city, supported by huge tree trunks carried from distant lands by the Axis fleets. A thousand new soldiers were trained to defend their homeland, and Randor assembled a provisory council to organise and coordinate the war effort.
This was a section of history that every serious scholar liked to sink their teeth into. The duplicity and backstabbing of wartime politics was what everybody wrote their academic treatises on. Zara had refused to continue that tradition, reasoning that her various tutors would be grateful for a change of topic. She had rather hoped that her own examination of Marget would make enough of a positive impact that her professor might forgive her lateness to so many of his lectures. That seemed a little to much to much to hope for.
Marget was a much more interesting candidate for examination, anyway. How was Zara not expected to admire a woman who had single-handedly coordinated the counter-assault on Roundhouse Mott, recapturing it from Bendrick’s forces? Or a woman who was well known by anyone who knew anything to be a better soldier than the great Randor, but who history texts ignored in a bizarre attempt to save face?
Indeed, often the only mention of Marget in the dusty scrolls which Zara examined daily was that Randor had married her and what had come after. Zara had stiffened when she had read that. As if Marget would allow anyone to marry her. Marget would most certainly be the one doing the marrying, Randor be damned. It was so typical of those old texts to only talk about a great woman in relation to a great man. One day, when she had published enough treatises to have made an impact on the stuffy academic world, Zara would change that. One day.
The blizzards and snow left Bendrick’s armies freezing and miserable. Acutely aware that he had no chance of success, and yet determined to pursue the only route he had left, Bendrick ordered the assault upon Enval to commence in earnest. In doing so, the Usurper essentially ended not only the war, but also unexpectedly destroyed his greatest enemy, Randor.
The huge siege engines which Bendrick’s forces had dragged with them from the East began to pound at the walls of Enval. Battering rams and trebuchets reduced the exterior of the ancient city to rubble, and Bendrick’s troops clambered over the cracked and crumbling brickwork, only to fall on the swords and spears of the city’s inexperienced yet desperate defenders.
Eventually, Bendrick’s forces were routed and only he remained standing on the battlefield. A furious duel erupted between Bendrick and Randor, lasting hours. As the two weaved and danced over the bodies of their fallen comrades, their heavy blades clashed and screeched as they each parried the other’s blows.
Zara had once been given a mud engraving of the duel, purchased from a merchant in Trench by her father. It had shown Randor, his muscles bulging beneath his armour, his face caked with sweat and blood, wielding a huge two-handed sword in just one hand and slashing at Bendrick. Bendrick was shown as a devil – jagged horns erupted from his forehead as if he were one of the mountain goats found in his homeland, and his eyes were fierce with madness.
She’d been given the etching years ago, shortly after the vast city of Trench had come into existence. Zara couldn’t remember what had happened to the engraving now.
Hours, or days according to some story-tellers who really ought to know better, Randor fell to his knees and dropped his sword. Yet as Randor waited for the blow which would end his life, he was saved.
Marget appeared from amongst the rubble of the fallen city, bellowing a cry of battle. As she launched herself into the midst of the battle, Bendrick found himself crumbling as blow after blow from her swords struck home. Grimly aware that he would not best his latest combatant, a plan flashed through Bendrick’s mind. He began to retreat, purposely losing ground to the advancing Marget. As she pursued him through the twisting, corpse-strewn streets of Enval, Marget had no idea of the Usurper’s true plans for her.
It was Zara’s opinion that Bendrick had been demonised far too much by history. He had been a traitor to the realm certainly, but so many sources seemed to pretend that he was a fool. If anything, Bendrick was a better tactician than both Randor and Marget put together.
Realising that there was no way out for him, Bendrick’s final act was to lure Marget to the underground vaults where Enval’s merchants stored their pure firescree.
Randor was some distance away when he had heard the explosion, and had realised then that there was no point in further pursuing his enemy. Instead, he had merely sat amongst the rubble of his city and wept for all that had died that day.
After the Battle of Enval, Randor disappeared. Some said that he had been seen in the distant Southern lands, others that he had journeyed North to try and find a way to return Marget to life. Whatever the truth, he left Gearis in capable hands.
The Seachieftains and city lords were able to formulate a peace treaty with the Eastern tribes who remained, taking the Eastern lands into the kingdom of Gearis. There was one caveat – the pure firescree found by Randor would be reburied so that the Eastfolk might contribute to the kingdom by mining the stone from their own mountains.
With the treaty agreed, and the southern firescree mines sealed, peace returned to Gearis.
Over the next few hundred years there had been half a dozen peasant uprisings by disgruntled Easterners, and many hundreds of mead-induced street brawls, but Gearis had remained more or less at peace.
Until the Scourge had come.
But that wasn’t important now. She had by now arrived at the spiral staircase which led up to the baskets which hung in the Hanging Galleries. Running up the steps two at a time, Zara’s nose became accustomed to the musty smell of books and ink that permeated the air. As she reached the top and burst out onto the platform which connected the central tower to the many suspended baskets containing seats and desks, she was greeted with a disappointed stare from her professor.
Zara sighed. She’d known that this would happen.