CHAPTER 1 – GROUNDBREAKING DISCOVERY
Beneath the brooding gray clouds of the heavens, far below the palace of the gods, gleamed Drian, the central city of Minecerva. It stood tall and brave and alone and, built of red brick, it glistened like a drop of blood on a gloomy canvas.
Death, Famine, and Despair had taken their toll on this ancient city, which had stood for longer than any of its inhabitants could chart, and now, at the end of the age, as the Golden King came closer and the time of the High Gods neared its end, its ignorant people began to cry and moan in darkness. They did not know it was the end of time, but somehow they wished for it, desperately, as an end to their terrible suffering.
As a specter watches over the graves of the dead, so Lady Adrea, daughter of the Steward and heir to guardianship of the throne, surveyed all beneath her with desperation. In multiple layers beneath her, the city of Drian expanded outward; the castle Korem looked out over the city, which wrapped about it on three sides, and the city of Drian looked out in three directions upon a landscape that expanded from it like a fan. Once, everywhere you looked had been green and verdant, trees full of foliage, fields golden with crops, and houses well-kept and proud. But Famine reigned triumphant now, and the trees were stark as in winter, the fields empty and brown, the houses emptied by Death. The citizens of Drian had been cut down like blades of prairie grass before the scythe.
Barely nineteen, Adrea stood upon the rim of the tallest tower of the palace. Her loose black hair stirred unkempt in the wind, her skin pulled tight upon her thin frame, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Her restless foot tapped the stone floor, giving off an impromptu beat of agony, and sickened more by the suffering of her people than her own severe want, she shuddered in the wind. She wrapped her white arms around her scanty shoulders, and reflected that she was tired: tired of trying to find an answer, tired of attending funerals, tired of offering soothing words to dying citizens.
For some reason, ever since she awoke that morning, a phrase had been nagging at the back of her mind, a fairytale told to her as a child by her beloved nurse: “And the Healer said, ‘A great famine shall sweep the land, and upon its heels plague and death. In this way you shall know that the coming of the king is at hand – the king who will restore the world.”
She had mulled over the phrase in her mind more as a song that would not leave her than because she believed there was any truth to it. As far as she knew, Fate had taken no interest in their plight for a hundred years, and they could put no faith in prophesies to save them. But she liked to repeat the words, for they were in the voice of Faring – Faring who had held her tenderly upon the death of her mother, Faring who had been an unflagging support throughout her life, Faring who lay dying in the palace below her.
With a heavy sigh, she thought perhaps it would be best for the people of Drian to perish now, perish at what seemed the end of time. Far gone, in this the eleven hundred and ninety-fourth year of Minecerva, were the glory days of kings, majesty, culture, and learning. Long gone was any understanding of the world outside their own red city, and now, ever since the beginning of the eleventh century, Drian’s people had dwindled, falling first into Despair, then Famine, and now a plague of Death. Now they would finally perish, not to war or an evil tyrant, but to an invisible, ambivalent enemy. “Upon its heels, plague and death…the king who will restore the world.”
Adrea wondered where Faring had read that from, and she wanted to know the whole of the story. On an impulse, she descended the long, winding staircase to the main hall of Korem. She crossed the round palace courtyard to the large, low, crumbling building across the way. It was the old castle library which, in her younger years, had served as her classroom. But other than the old caretaker who lived like a hermit amid his piles of parchment, the building was now abandoned. Adrea entered the darkness and descended to the vaults underneath the palace, to the mazes of parchments, scrolls and words, desperate to find some fragment of comfort.
The library was dusty and dim, and she lit a lamp to illumine the vast criss-cross of shelves. Here, words had been stashed and forgotten – words of importance that no one understood. Never before had she been interested in these volumes, for her teachers had never encouraged her to be so. Her father loved politics and modern government, as had his father before him, and so Lord Astren, Steward of Drian, did not care to delve into the history of the past, and had discouraged his daughter’s teachers to instruct her in it. Only her nurse had told her stories, legends of once upon a time, and now it was those story fragments of the past that seemed all important – for once, Lady Adrea, daughter of the Steward of Drian, had no use for royal protocol or laws. Only a desperation for comfort.
With dogged desperation, eager to make sense of the crumbling world around her, she sorted through text after text, sneezing and rubbing her eyes, and searching on into the waning hours of evening. At last, it was on a partial piece of parchment, folded away beneath a pile of stacked papyrus, that she found a reference to a Healer. “And the Healer said…” rang Faring’s voice in her head, and her heart leapt. She read the passage in the hope of learning what type of person a Healer was, but this was not the story she was looking for… it was a financial record, and it did not explain the Healer’s profession. “Surely,” she thought, “Healers were a type of physician in the past.”
The lyric played on in her head. “In this way you shall know that the coming of the king is at hand…” And now, wondering if Healers were more than a story, she renewed her search with fresh vigor.
Finally, she found a passage that buoyed her spirits. It was a descriptive document that told of a Healer who had taken on an apprentice, apparently the heir to Drian, to pass on his craft. But the document told that the young prince had died before attaining either goal. It was only a paragraph inserted in a long history, but it was a fact. A Healer. A Healer, though she still did not understand what it was, had lived, and breathed, and healed in Drian.
She reread the passage, drinking it in, hoping for some hint of how the Healers healed. She skimmed ahead, and paused to read carefully when she encountered the words, “He taught the prince the fine art of sealing a wound and the nice skill of eradicating plague. (Eradicating plague!) The boy excelled in the art, far exceeding any other pupil his age. There is a legend of how he brought a patient back from the brink of death merely by laying his hands upon him.”
Her heart beat rapidly. Healers could save the dying. With all the death around her, hope pounded in her heart. And, a little later, she read, “applying his art, the Healer restored bounty to the impoverished land, bringing about a wealth of grain, fruit, and livestock.”
Now it was completely black outside and she wondered how long she had sat entombed among scrolls of the dead. Her feet were asleep and she stamped them upon the cold floor, and then gathered the relevant papers into her arms, lifted the fluttering lamp, and ascended to the palace.
In the outer corridors, she passed a servant carrying bandages and medicines. “Have you seen my father?”
“He is in the center room, my lady, with the council.” And with all haste, she made her way to the throne room, where her father sat surrounded by his six councilors, like a father pontificating to his children around the dinner table. It was night now and the moonlight speckled about the chamber through the crystal roof above.
He looked up when she came in but did not smile, for he had just been speaking of the hopelessness of finding a cure, the impossibility of saving those already infected, and the likelihood that many more would soon fall victim to its onslaught. He had little to smile about. “Yes, daughter?”
“I think I have found something to help us.” She placed the document on the massive table and pointed imperiously to the passage she had found. His voice rough and strong, her father read it aloud to the white and gray haired men.
“I don’t understand,” he said when he finished. “How does this help us?” Her father, Lord Astren, the steward and protector of Drian in the long absence of the king, looked at her with sad, despairing eyes. The two silver balls that framed his head on the back of the chair highlighted the silver flecks of his gray hair.
“There were so many of them, Father. This talks about them as a large group. So many Healers, they cannot possibly be all gone.”
“They’d be dead by now,” observed Lord Melcis.
“This Mendican taught his craft to the future king. Surely others must have passed it down. Maybe we can find them. Maybe they can heal us.”
Her youthful fervor did not catch flame in the dark room. The councilors merely stirred, and shook their wise heads. Lord Ferand raised his thick, gray eyebrows at her and folded his arms over his velvety tunic. “And even if you found one of these ‘Healers’, just exactly how do you think one man can save our city?”
Her steely, earnest eyes stared down the old lord, full of fierce pain. Adrea hated pain. She refused to wallow in it. Now that she had a path to follow, she would direct her energies into action: action to put an end to suffering. “Our people are dying, Lord Ferand. Are you all right with that? Nothing we have tried will stop it, but these Healers can do more than end the plague. According to this text,” she pointed a long, slim finger to a paragraph of the book, “they could bring an end to the famine.”
Her father pushed himself up and walked over to her. Practical, straight, cold, and passionate, she stood taller than her short height. Her sleek, dark hair pushed behind her ears; her narrow, lithe frame clothed with cotton, dark velvet, and a leather belt; and her never-still feet imperceptibly tapping the floor. He knew she was not asking for the men to make a decision; she was waiting to voice her ready-made plan.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked her.
“Send me away from the city in search of one of these Healers. It is better than sitting around here doing nothing and watching our people die.”
The Steward stood as straight and proud as his daughter. He was both a humble, untiring servant of his country, and a proud, noble man. There was a thin, unyielding, patient strength to their family that carried them through the greatest and most grueling of ages: through the ravages of famine and illness, through the hardship of rule, and through the drain of generations of petty wars. Now that strength held his back stiff and firm. His people may be dying, but he would persevere. He nodded. “I will assign you an escort and you may do as you ask.” Coming up to her, he rested his long, firm fingers on her shoulders and kissed her forehead. “Perhaps, my dearest, you will save our city.”
CHAPTER 2 – ONLY A COMMON SOLDIER
When Adrea rode into the courtyard the next day, astride her regal dark horse and dressed in a mid-calf length skirt, apron, three-quarter length sleeves, and a headband to hold back her thick dark hair, she sighed disappointedly to see her father descend the outer steps with a tall, handsome soldier. She did not recognize the man, but he was of medium build, with big hands and broad shoulders; his skin was fair, hair light, nose aquiline, jaw square, and eyes open, honest, and blue, and the overall effect of his appearance was that he looked very capable.
Adrea detested people who looked capable. This arose from the fact that her father apprized others by their appearance, often honoring handsome men and women only because they were handsome, and not on account of skill level or intelligence. Being of a contrary nature, Adrea had therefore grown up to dismiss attractive people as quickly as her father dismissed the ugly.
“Is this my escort?” she asked.
The blonde-haired young man saluted her sharply. Though a soldier, he was not arrayed in armor, helmet, or shield, but dressed as a simple traveler in a leather jerkin, suede billowing cape, and a plain sword. He wore also, close about him, an aura of dedication which Adrea could not see: an air of purpose forged through independence, for he was a man striving to prove himself, to find himself in the place he desperately believed he belonged. An unproven military man.
“Captain Trinian is the best our army has to offer, and I trust him to keep you safe.”
She nodded respectfully to her father. It was enough of a concession, she knew, for him to dispatch her to the wilderness with only a single companion. Her handmaidens were all ill, as was half the army, and two young people, still hale and full of fighting life, were all the rescue-force he could spare. She would make no complaint.
Side by side, with all those healthy enough to lean out of their windows and doorways to watch, they rode out of the city gates, across the worn-out, overgrown road, and into the wilds of Drian.
“Which direction?” asked Trinian. His voice was strong with a slight cadence, and despite herself, she liked it, and answered him companionably, “I thought we would head southwest toward the old monuments from the time of the kings. There may be some neglected settlements that way.”
He nodded. “I will follow you where you go. I am here to protect you, my lady, wherever you choose to travel.”
She sighed to herself at his answer, deciding that she had been right to begin with – he was just a strong arm and a pretty face, with no real thoughts in his head.
They climbed among dusty mounds, waded through dry prairies, and skirted thickets of brush and thorn, traveling from one ancient ruin to the next. From day to day, Adrea said little to the soldier by her side, and he kept royal protocol by not speaking unless spoken to. Adrea’s feelings were often buried deep in her heart, hidden from the world and beneath a careful façade of propriety. But now, comingled with strong despair for her people – for her handmaidens dying in their chambers, for her mother’s brother for whom they had held a funeral two days before she left, for Faring who was dying now – they bubbled strong near the surface; and with each fresh disappointment in the wilderlands, they threatened to overflow. So she said nothing, for fear of betraying her fear, and they traveled in silence.
On the first day, they saw the crumbling palace of the Bawrgs with its towers like stalagmites and its eaves like icicles. But it was desolate. On the next, they wandered the tunnels of the Nemen Vaults winding like a rabbit warren beneath the surface of the earth. Empty. And on the evening of the third, they mounted to the top of the Diraah Pinnacle, which heaved high above the wilderlands of Drian in a giant swirl. Barren. They were all impressive ruins, but Adrea could not appreciate them. Not even occupied by groups of bandits or thieves, they were utterly desolate, despite the fact that this country was supposed to be ripe with outlaws. But the famine seemed to have driven them all away. The monuments were dead and empty; not a trace of life, and it was life she wanted.
Adrea gazed out from the top of the pinnacle of Diraah, gripping the sharp sides of the wall beside her. She could see far out over the whole of the land, standing as she did in the very center of Minecerva, and could make out the far mountains of Austro to the West, the hundred mile wall of Kelta to the North, the river Rordan snaking behind the shining, circular city of Drian to the East, and finally, the ancient forests that bordered Drian and South Drian in the South. Slicing through the forest was the one road that led from her home to South Drian – all else was dense tree line.
“Why do you think this land is so wild now? Have the gods abandoned it?” she said at last.
Trinian was leaning behind her against a stone protrusion darkened with ages of wind and rain. He straightened now, and scanned the world laid out like a map at his feet, as if he could uncover its secrets with his eyes.
“I don’t know much about natural gods. But I’ve heard the stories – of how they warred with each other here, and trampled humanity in the process.”
“Yes, I know the stories. You would think, though, that the gods would be better than ourselves…at least, I wish that were so – it would be more comforting. I was sort of wondering if the Healers were natural gods.”
“Ah. I had not thought of that. It would make sense, from what you say of them.”
“If only I knew more of Drian’s history. I know we once prayed to the high gods who dwell above in the heavenly palace, and in the old tales, we could speak to the natural ones who dwelt here on Minecerva. But those days are long past, and maybe all the gods, after all, are only fiction. Maybe we are alone here, on this charred pinnacle: no one can see us, no one hear us, no one bring us comfort.” She did not lose control when she said it, though her heart rose in her throat. She was a perfect lady, who kept her calm even in the face of utter despair. Now she raised her head in defiance. “If all else fails, we will pray to the high gods before returning to Drian. What do we have to lose now?”
Trinian nodded silently and Adrea suddenly dropped to her knees. Slowly, Trinian followed suit.
“Gods of Drian, hear us now,” she cried. “We call upon you for aid – save our city! Restore the land and the people to life. Return to us and nurture our lost prosperity. We will build altars, burn incense, and sacrifice our first fruits to your goodness. Only save us from utter destruction.”
They were both silent for a long while until Adrea slowly rose from her knees. Trinian sprang up buoyantly, his yellow hair gleaming in the sunlight, and a smile on his face.
“Do you know,” he reflected openly, so that Adrea was taken aback, “I’ve never prayed before. It’s an odd concept to talk to someone who may or may not be there.”
She frowned, his candor affecting her overfull turmoil of emotions. “Do you think they heard us?” she asked vulnerably.
He frowned and pursed his lips. “Like you said, what do we have to lose?”
“What do we do now?”
They were both surprised by the question, but finally Trinian answered. “It is up to you, my lady. But if you want my opinion, I suggest we light a fire and go to sleep.”
She nodded, and together they descended to make camp at the foot of the spire.