The Baron and the Priestess
Early settlers who came to this land in search of fortune found fortune in the iron mines. West Rufus was vast rocky region on the western bank of river Sane. The ores mined here were molded into the finest iron in the kingdom. It was this iron that attracted some of the best ironsmiths, alchemists and hunters in all of Ashlora. These early settlers built a city upon the iron-filled hills and they named it Ironheart.
In centuries to come, Ironheart flourished on its natural wealth and talented craftsmen. The current Citadel, the city of Azeth, was pale in comparison to Ironheart in its heyday, nowhere in Ashlora could have compared to Ironheart. And frankly speaking, there hadn’t been many cities in Ironheart’s heyday.
Then as though jealous of the city’s prosperity God sent a mysterious plague to plunder Ironheart of its wealth. Like a hidden dagger, the plague emerged from unknown origin and stabbed deep into the city’s veins: its vital resources. The farms surrounding Ironheart could no longer produce food, the wells became barren and the rain became poisonous.
The plague worsened over the years. From a miniscule start in the Dark Forest it had extended rapidly across the western region and swallowed up the whole West Rufus along with the lands upstream of river Sane. It was only a matter of time before the entire Ironheart was consumed by the blight.
And the people of Ironheart thought they had seen the worst of it.
The bishop was found dead last night. He was struck by a strange light a watchman saw from his guard tower. No one asked the paladins of Azeth to intervene. They just happened to be there on the Archbishop’s order. It was a non-hostile take-over. The city’s gates were open for the crusaders to enter.
Father Felacia was a charitable man. He was beloved by commoners and nobles alike as his see fell on the darkest chapter in Ironheart’s history. Spiritual guidance is always on high demand in times like these.
Before he became a cleric, he was married to a noblewoman. They had a daughter together. The silver-eyed girl was named Lilia, after the white lily in the castle garden. When his wife passed away in a family revolt, he and several loyalists called for assistance from Azeth. The Common’s Hall sent reinforcement and the combined force vanquished the illegitimate reign.
In the later days leading up to the plague outbreak, Father Felacia found solace in the house of God. He led a pious life helping the less fortunate, leaving his daughter in the care of the new baron. His death stirred quite a commotion amongst the nobles and the commoners alike.
The local baron Sir Richard was in a good relation with the leaders of Azeth. But that alone wouldn’t justify the crusaders’ presence in Ironheart—a city already worshipped the Lord, their God. Perhaps the main motivation was due to a rumored letter the baron received this morning.
The letter had been sent to the Holy Church of the Lord, a monastery outside Ironheart, from Father Felacia the night before his death. It was to be delivered to the castle at dawn should he fail to return. This letter had kept the court priestess on her toes since yesterday. She knew about it and she feared for the bishop‘s safety.
In the dead of night, she banged on the cathedral’s door and urged the Church’s chapter to open the letter earlier but they had turned her down; the chapter wished to uphold the bishop’s will to the end.
Her worst fear came true.
At noon of the next day, the Priestess was seen recruiting mercenaries at the local guild. She was looking for brave souls who would dare venture with her into the Dark Forest to capture the Witch.
Like her father, Priestess Lilia was popular to the townspeople. Unlike Father Felacia, she was admired for her knowledge in alchemy and known for her involvement in Silverflow Council. She enjoyed being the first in everything. She was the first to be court wizard and priestess, the first sorceress to hold the highest rank in Silverflow Academy, the first noble to escape an arranged marriage, turn a prince into a frog and almost get away with it.
She turned the prince into a frog. The royal guard tied her to a boulder and forced her into kissing the frog. It didn’t work. She even threw up on the frog. Fortunately, the metamorphosis only lasted two hours. The prince returned to human form but he could never taste food the same again. In the end, the Archbishop had to intervene. He made the prince forget the encounter, got them all out of a political hot mess and put Lilia under the Holy Church’s supervision.
Later that afternoon, the Holy Church of the Lord revealed the murderer to the public. For once, the Church and the Academy unanimously agreed on one thing: the killer was the Black Witch. The Baron confirmed the letter he received from Father Felacia mentioned the Witch.
It was always the Black Witch.
Despite the large bounty, only one person answered Lilia’s call. He was a militia armed with only an iron sword and a simple barrel-bottom shield. He was met with smear laughter. They called him mad. The Priestess accepted him. They called her mad too. Neither of them was mad but both were desperate. He was desperate for a job and she was desperate to trial the Witch before anyone could.
Her party-of-two was stopped by infantrymen wielding Azeth’s dark blue shields when they approached the castle. These crusaders kept a close watch of the castle. Lilia introduced herself as the court priestess and wished to discuss urgent matters with the Baron. They let her through but the Militia must stay behind.
There was only one entrance to the court. Eight crusaders were guarding the entrance in place of the usual elite guards. Two of them were magicians and the other six were heavy footmen. None of the red-helm guards was seen in the castle. The entire place was overrun by the crusaders.
“This is preposterous! Where are our guards?” was the first thing she exclaimed to the Baron when they met in the court.
The Baron dismissed the crusaders and the servants.
“Shhhh! Lower your voice”, the Baron whispered.
The former noble knight, Sir Richard, was often seen in his ironclad. He chose a halberd as his primary weapon but in his old age, he usually wielded a single light sword. The Baron was left-handed. A small circular shield was mounted on his right arm. Embossed on the shield was the bronze pickaxe and iron hammer crest of Ironheart. Overhanging flags bearing the same coat of arms on dark red background flowed from the ceiling. These were the only Ironheart flags Lilia had seen in the castle so far.
“Where are our guards?” Lilia lowered her voice and repeated the question.
“Hiding in a secret tunnel behind the bookshelf”
“There is one in the throne chamber too!?”
“Shhh! They—he referred to the crusaders, motioning to the entrance—can hear us”, the Baron said under his breath.
“Ye”, the Baron nodded.
“I’m not going to ask why…”
Lilia shrugged her shoulders and sighed. Sir Richard sighed as well. They had reached an understanding.
Historically speaking, Ironheard held a friendly relationship with Azeth. In reality, the Baron was always wary of the Citadel. He had never approved of the Archbishop as the head figure. Nevertheless, because the city’s survival relied on a clear trade road to the rest of the kingdom, he had to turn a blind eye to the Archbishop’s meddling.
The same mentality was shared by the Silverflow Council. And since Lilia was a member of it, she understood the resentment well. Yet, without enough elders willing to fill the empty seats, she could also see why the Common’s Hall had to take the bitter pill and submit authorities to the Holy Church.
“My heartfelt condolences. Your father was a noble soul. The Lord will surely accept him in heaven”, he paused and solemnly added, “Nevertheless, I cannot grant your request. Not now”
“I beg you, my lord”, she kneeled down, “I can do it. I can capture the Witch. I shall put her on trial for the crimes she has committed against our people and…and…against my father. But in order to do so, I must borrow your—”
“—Lilia! Your father has just passed away. You are young, rash, and emotional. I cannot lend you the elite guards when it is your own frustration you cannot quell”
The Priestess held her head low, she bargained, “Then, may I ask for a guide, someone who knows the way to the Witch’s hut?”
The Baron helped her stand up. He wrapped her slender shoulders in his arms and held her tightly. His strong arms trembled. He turned his face away so that the girl couldn’t see him grieve. And in a sorrowful voice, he spoke:
“Lilia, your father was a precious friend of mine. I can’t bear losing you now. I have seen enough youngsters lost their life to vengeance. This old body doesn’t have the strength to shovel dirt on another young’s grave. No, not again, I beg you…”
Lilia was taken by surprise, shocked by his sudden outburst. She felt the loss more deeply than anyone could but she hardened her heart and traded weeping for resolution. She gritted her teeth. She must fight back tears welling up. Seeing the Baron in like this reminded her of the gap in her heart. And it started bleeding again.
“My lord, I don’t deserve your kindness. I shall not bring you sorrow…” she found it increasingly difficult to utter the words out, “The people look up to you. They look up to us. I am the court priestess”
She looked up at the Baron whose dry tears caused her more pain than any blade.
Their eyes met and in that moment, the old noble saw a daughter who grieved her father but was not permitted to shed tears. The Baron kept her in his tight embrace. He did not say anything.
“You and I…we must stay strong…If-If”, her words began to break up, “we don’t…hic, hic—she sobbed—…who will?”
His hand gently patted on her back. Her tears dripped on his arm.
“There, there, I know. It was hard for you. But you don’t have to stay strong in front of me. Cry, my girl. Cry until your misery is quenched, until your heart is calm, and your mind is clear”
While the Baron was comforting the Priestess, hunters of Azeth gathered at the Dark Forest’s boundaries. They marched in single file, the man behind walked on the footstep of the man ahead of him. It didn’t take long for the professional bounty hunters to reach the Witch’s hut. And yet, it took them longer to find their way across the garden only to find an empty house.
A few paladins attempted to reset the traps in the garden. Two of them were immediately poisoned by the corrupted magic. They turned mad, expended all their power before they lost consciousness. Several others were injured by the spells. Eventually, the hunters cleared out the remaining traps and set up their own ambush in the garden. They camped inside the house in complete darkness, waiting for the prey to return.
That evening, Sir Richard sneaked out of the castle via a secret tunnel behind the bookshelf. He did not fancy the idea of being followed. He had these tunnels built so that he could leave the castle in secret. They came into handy when the crusaders from Azeth barged into his place and kept him in loose custody.
Four red-helm elite knights were waiting in the tunnel. They saluted the Priestess and the Baron. She blushed and smacked at their chest plate as she stomped her feet past them. They chuckled and joked about how they had been watching from a peephole behind a torch’s shadow. Of course, she had realized it as soon as she saw the tunnel.
These were the guards Lilia had always known personally. They used to accompany her when she came to play in the castle. She was a little girl then. It was years before she started studying clergy. These men, and one woman, all had strong build. They were a head taller than the Militia whom Lilia hired. She stood to their elbow, which put her below the mercenary’s level.
“Alright, gents, ladies, and…”
“Steve”, the Militia said.
“—and Steve”, the Baron added.
The guards and Lilia chuckled.
“His Majesty, Mr. Excellency, the Lord’s Prophet foretold my demise. He sends a bunch of wimps to lock me in the castle ‘for my own protection’. Ha’lly willy boos! Tonight is Saturday night. Who stays home on Saturday night?”
“Dead people!” the knights answered in unison and threw their fists in the air.
“What was that again? I can’t hear you”
“Only dead people stay home on Saturday night!” they shouted again. Lilia joined them this time. The carefree laughter from these fellows lightened her mood.
“With you gents, ladies and Steve around, I feel much safer, much younger and much more alive than around those no-life wimps. Let’s us march to Brown’s Boulder and live our lives to the fullest tonight. For tomorrow, we will raid the Witch’s house!”
“We will? I thought you wouldn’t let me—”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you. His Majesty has commanded us to stand down. He and his ‘holy army’ will take care of the Witch and ‘safeguard’ us from the dark curses that ‘will befall upon Ironheart’. That’s why the crusaders are staying in town tonight”, the Baron clarified. He made no attempt to hide his mockeries.
So that was how it would play out. Once the Citadel has given order, Ironheart, as a vassal, must obey.
“And we are invited to observe the witch hunt tomorrow”, the Baron added, stressing on the fact that they wouldn’t be allowed to do anything.
While the Priestess was disappointed not being able to take revenge into her own hands, she supposed it might be better this way.
“Can we really trust the Archbishop? He moved an army against a single Witch. Isn’t it suspicious?” one of the knights wondered.
The Baron didn’t answer the question immediately. He turned to Lilia and asked:
“Lilia. Which one do you prefer, your position as a priestess or as a court wizard?”
“Hmm, I prefer…” she contemplated the question, “…as a lonely girl who finds comfort in your long embrace”, she picked the third option.
“My lord, His Excellency is a righteous man. He wouldn’t have any hidden agenda. But if he did, I hope he didn’t but if he did, my loyalty is yours. Ironheart is my father’s home. I will choose to protect Ironheart above all else”, she pled her allegiance to the Baron.
“And so shall we”, the elite knights all said and knelt down by the Priestess’s side.
The Baron raised his chin and cast a gaze at Steve still standing behind the knights. The Militia was the only one who had yet to make any remark other than stating his name.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever she—he pointed at Lilia—says, as long as I’m paid”, the Militia awkwardly commented, scratching his neck. He had no interest in following any court manner.
A knob-less door stood before them at the end of the tunnel. On the other side of the door they could hear voices talking and laughter. At other times, there were cheers, the noise of liquid being poured into various vessels, the crispy sound of grills, the faint smell of beverage and old pine barrels.
The Baron and three other men pushed the barrel blockages asides and cleared a path for the rest of the party to come through. They had arrived in a cellar. There was light coming from another door—with knob this time—at the end of the rows made up of crates and barrels. All the sounds they heard came from behind that door.
“Lilia, I’m going to introduce you to someone who will assist us tomorrow. He’s also a friend of your father. If he says something that makes you feel uncomfortable, ignore him. Certain people here are, well…let’s just say ‘like rabbit in heat’. Do not accept drinks from strangers, unless I allow you to. It’s better if you don’t stand out too much”
The Baron intrigued her curiosity. She couldn’t imagine what kind of people he was dealing with. That one particular part which received a fair share of emphasis signified shady crowd ahead. It made her wonder what good the man in question would bring them.
For the moment, she only had a vague idea of what the Baron wanted for tomorrow.
There would be a confrontation at the witch hunt. Things could get messy quickly were the Archbishop have plans against Ironheart. And then, there was the Black Witch. God knows what the cruel-hearted sorceress is capable of when cornered. When all other sides had face-down cards, Ironheart must also prepare their own. Ironheart must be ready to choose the lesser evil.
The Baron turned around. Before they entered Brown’s Boulder tavern, he reminded them of one more thing, which came as more of an in-joke to the knights, to the Priestess’s dismay:
“Ah, right, and no magic, no puking, no frog”
A fantasy novel from NaNoWriMo camp July 2014 – July 2015
The fate of a Medieval kingdom ruled by the Holy Church of the Saints, the future of the Illuminati order, and the destiny of Eliot–the Black Witch–all will be at stake.
Eliot has her own way when it comes to clearing her name of the crime she did not commit and reclaiming her peaceful life. Meanwhile, the Holy Church prefer seeing her burned in the purgatory flame for their people’s sake; and her best allies, the Illuminati, have yet to consider her an ally. Two decades of conflict will soon end as all sides seek the ancient powers to defeat their oppositions. One seeks an angel, one wages a war, the other finds knowledge and, by the way, the Devil loves a good deal finger crossed.
Only those who make the right decisions will be granted a future. And a White Destiny it shall be.