Lev had smelled the sea all morning, leading up to when the group of Cyruzhian monks he travelled with reached Dargon. It was nearing mid-afternoon and pouring rain when the brothers came within sight of the ducal seat. Water smote Lev on the head like pebbles dropped from a tree and dripped down his hood in front of his face. Despite the thickness of the black cloak he wore, he was soaked to his very bones; such was the intensity of the downpour. He shivered. His feet, covered almost completely in thick mud, felt like two blocks of solid ice. Ever since he had received a blow on the head some years ago trying to rescue Zhilinda Fennell from her kidnappers, his left side had never worked well. Now it was all he could do to keep up with his fellow Cyruzhians.
As the group crested the last hill that would put them within eyeshot of the city, Lev could hear a loud rumbling like thunder. He guessed that was from the water crashing against the shoreline. He peered through the rain, trying to get a good look at the city.
Obscured by mist, Dargon Keep was a darker shadow on a dim background, perched like a magnificent bird on a rocky outcropping. Lev could only imagine what it looked like in sunlight, without sheets of a pelting deluge to obscure the view.
Lev could make out detail on only the closest buildings, but even so, he could see the roofs of more houses than he could begin to count, intermixed with soaring church spires — the smallest of which would rival the bell tower at Heart’s Hope Monastery in Fennell. He felt sure that the city could very well have gone on forever, except that the deep rumble of the sea could be heard to the northwest despite the din caused by the pounding rain.
Lev slowed to a stop when he noticed that his brothers were some distance behind him. What were they waiting for? Lev wanted to get to the city as soon as possible, if for no other reason than to get out of the rain. He hobbled back to the group.
“In this light we can see Dargon for what it really is, if what I have heard of it is true,” one of the brothers said. “A dark pit of evil and faithlessness.”
“What are you talking about?” Lev could hardly believe his ears. “I’ve never seen something so grand in my life!”
“What do you know, novice?” the other monk scowled. “You’re just a dumb farm boy, easily mystified by –”
Lev felt his face heat and his muscles tremble with tension. “And I suppose you know everything there is to know about the world because you’ve been all the way to the outer cloister, brother!” Lev filled the last word with scorn, spitting it like it was a swearword.
“Brothers!” Prior Yaroslav stepped in between Lev and the other monk. “Hold your tongues! You should be ashamed of yourselves! If you cannot keep a civil tongue with one another, how are you supposed teach the Stevene’s Light to strangers?”
Lev swallowed, and backed away from the prior. His body felt suddenly weak. He stared at the ground and shuffled his feet as Yaroslav reprimanded him. He felt foolish for his hasty words. He had never had a bad temper, but just a few moments ago he had felt enough anger to do violence.
“We are not here to condemn,” Yaroslav continued. “We are here to give Stevene’s Light and what help we may to all in need — no matter who that may be. Know that the healthy person does not need a physician, but the sick person does. Even at that, Dargon is certainly not the rats’ nest you would have us believe it is, brother.”
“Yes, reverend sir,” the brother who had spoken murmured, his eyes downcast.
There was silence for the next few menes. Lev could feel the tension in the air and his chest tightened. Desperately, he sought for something to say that would break the mood. “I don’t know about you, brothers, but I think the sooner we are indoors, the better.”
The monks mumbled approval, and the group began to trudge down the hill towards Dargon. It took the better part of the afternoon to navigate the muddy highway that was nearly a creek, with runoff from higher ground sweeping over their feet. By the time they reached the outskirts of the city, the relentless deluge had slowed to a steady shower, and a mist had rolled in from the sea. Though clouds had covered the sun all day, it was apparent that it was setting, as darkness descended even more oppressively over the city. Lev could see only a few cubits in front of him, making all but the closest buildings invisible.
They took to the Street of Travellers, having approached Dargon from the southwest, and moved east along the road. Lev noticed that the buildings were much taller than those in Fennell Keep. The group did not encounter any of the people of Dargon, as they were presumably all huddled inside away from the cold and wet. The rain had put out most of the streetlamps, so the streets were very dark. Here the buildings muffled the sound of the sea, so that it was almost totally quiet, save for the gentle patter of the rain.
As the monks approached the western end of town nearer the ocean, more life began to show itself in the unlit streets. A hand grabbed at Lev as he walked past a darkened alleyway.
“Please, good sir,” a voice croaked. “Have you any alms to spare?”
Lev jumped at the touch. His cloak fell out of the man’s grasp, and Lev steadied himself. He looked at the shape huddled in between two houses: it was a man who wore only rags on his body, and his skin looked as if it were rotting from his bones. Lev recognised him as a leper, and felt ashamed at his initial reaction of fear. He knew the despair and helplessness that came with having parts of his body paralysed. Lev looked up to Yaroslav for guidance.
The prior lowered himself to a knee, and produced a flask from within his robes. “Unfortunately we did not bring a healer with us, but this should help a little.” He spread the oil on the man’s skin, unafraid of the leprosy that ate at it. Lev was impressed by the prior’s lack of fear. As Lev looked at the leper, he could imagine the pain that the disease inflicted on the man, but was not sure he would be so willing to touch him. Lev felt a pang of guilt.
Yaroslav placed a hand on the beggar’s head, and said a prayer. “We can take you with us, to the Cyruzhian monastery if you wish.”
“No,” the man said. “It is too late. I would be there now if I could, but the guards at the abbey don’t let anyone in after dark. Not since the shadow boys sought refuge there but a fortnight ago and nearly stripped it bare!”
“Stripped it?” one of the young brothers behind Yaroslav gasped in horror.
“Aye,” the leper said. “And tried to burn it to the ground as well.” He glanced about nervously before he continued on. “I hear tell that Liriss paid them to do it — the monks haven’t been doing him any favours you know.”
“Liriss?” Lev asked.
“Shush!” the leper scolded. “Not so loud, young sir. Liriss is a great and terrible man. Do not trifle with him.”
“What is this Liriss’ interest in the Cyruzhian brothers?” Yaroslav asked quietly.
“Liriss is the lord of all crime in this city. He dislikes the Cyruzhians because they spread their teachings in his territory! Not the least of which, they hurt his ‘fishmongering’ business by chastising those who would hire such services, and even of a night they’ve hired the girls themselves to keep them safe in the abbey for a little while.”
“Tell me, friend,” Yaroslav prodded. “Is there a certain place where this Liriss practices his trade of ‘fishmongering’ most?”
“Oh, yes,” the diseased man said. “The Shattered Spear is certainly one place, since the owner asks no questions. It is not too far from here, nor from the abbey.”
“Then that is where we shall spend the night.” Yaroslav stood, and gestured for the others to follow.
Once the monks were a ways down the street and out of earshot of the beggar, Brother Gregory said, “Reverend sir, is it wise for us to stay at such a place?”
“Yes, I think so,” Yaroslav replied. “For one thing, it is certainly a place where our help will be needed most. For another, it is close to the monastery. Finally, I think that if this crime lord Liriss really wanted our brothers out of the city, they would be. That said, I do not know what his intent might have been for robbing the brothers, but I think we should be as safe at the Shattered Spear as anywhere else.”
Lev nodded to himself. He was not overly anxious to be locked up inside of a monastery again, so soon after leaving the confines of one. After only spending a short time in Dargon he had seen a lot, and he was sure there was more still. The other brothers only murmured quietly in agreement.
“A hymn,” Yaroslav suggested, “to keep our spirits high and our feet moving.”
He chose a cheerful song that served to take away some of the gloom of the cold and wet, and drew curious looks from windows and any townsfolk who happened to be on the streets. By the time the song was ended, the crash of waves upon the shore was noticeably louder, and the area of town certainly poorer. Here the air no longer smelled of salt. Instead it was stale and smelled like the latrines in Heart’s Hope. The alleyways were so narrow that two people could not pass down them side by side.
The group travelled single file down one such alley where drunkards slept, who had to be stepped over carefully. Near the end of the street, torchlight flickered, emanating through the open windows of a very noisy tavern. They rounded the corner and emerged onto another relatively wide street, and almost knocked over a man who was leaning up against a wall and vomiting the contents of his stomach onto the muddy road.
A bout of raucous laughter filled the street as the front door to the building was flung open, and a man fell through it face-first in the mud. All of the monks could read, but it made little difference, as there was no written sign by which to identify the place. There was, however, a sign depicting a spear that had been broken into several pieces hanging above the door.
“I would say we have found the ‘Shattered Spear’,” Yaroslav said.
The prior led the way into the boisterous tavern. Inside, a raging fire in the hearth threw modest light and warmth. The inn stank of unwashed bodies crammed together, and the smoke of a poorly vented fireplace. But Lev was so thankful of the warmth that he was happy to put up with it. Lev was certain he and his fellow monks made little positive contribution to the smell themselves, having travelled for several days without washing, and being soaked and mud-bespattered as they were. For now, Lev craved only to sit near the fire and warm himself.
The monks pushed their way through the crowd until they were in front of the fire, where they took seats on the stone hearth. No one was sitting there, presumably, because it was quite warm in the crowded inn already. The Cyruzhians were chilled from their long journey through the rain, however, so they were glad of the added heat.
Lev looked over at Brother Gregory next to him and noticed that steam rose from his cloak as the warmth of the fire forced the water out of it. Lev then looked around the room. The place was not especially large, and probably as a result seemed to contain more people than it really did. Wooden tables were scattered throughout, but there were no seats empty. In one darkened corner, two men with hoods pulled over their heads sat huddled close together over a table in quiet discussion. In the middle of the room, a muscular bald man with a scar running down his right cheek was challenging a sailor to a drinking contest, while a young barmaid placed half-sloshed mugs on the table. At the bar, beside a fat farmer who fell half-off his stool every time he broke out in peals of laughter, a barmaid half-out of her bodice was sitting on the lap of a man with tattoos covering both arms. No one appeared to have taken much notice of the monks, concerned as they were with their own drink and company.
Lev had to cast his eyes away from the women in the tavern forcibly, for he was shocked by the reaction he had to seeing them. Lev’s heart leapt when they moved in such a way as to reveal some of a smooth leg, or their hair swished about. He could feel fire in his loins, and a light-headedness. He knew that many changes were occurring in his body, despite his prayers; the full realisation of it hit him only now as he was faced with close proximity to attractive young women.
“We don’t have tables for beggars. You either buy something or leave,” a man, presumably the owner, said gruffly as he approached the group of monks huddled on the fireplace hearth.
Yaroslav stood and fixed the man with an engaging smile. “My good fellow, we are not beggars, though I must admit we have little with which to pay. We are but humble brothers come from the monastery in Fennell –”
“If you’re monks, why aren’t you at the abbey?”
“If you please, good sir,” the prior held up a placating hand. “The guards do not let anyone in at this time of night. We seek only to warm ourselves by your fire, and spend the night. How much would we have to pay for a piece of the floor?”
The barkeeper mumbled a sum into his bushy moustache, which Lev could not make out, but was sure the amount was outrageous. Prior Yaroslav seemed unperturbed, however.
“I will give you all that we have,” the prior said as he pulled a few coins from a pouch.
“You’ll need more than that! Forget it — get out now or I’ll have you thrown out!”
The smile disappeared from Yaroslav’s face, and he took a step towards the barkeep. The prior was nearly a full hand taller than the other man. He placed a hand on the bartender’s shoulder. “We haven’t any more, but we can return in the morrow to repay you …”
“No … that won’t be necessary,” the barkeep’s voice was shaky as he took the coins from Yaroslav and made as if to move away.
“But I insist!” Yaroslav said, clapping the man on the shoulder and making him jump. “Indeed, we shall even provide some entertainment for the inconvenience. A hymn, a story perhaps?”
“I said that won’t be necessary.”
“It is, though,” Yaroslav continued. Lev could see the prior’s grip tightening on the barkeeper’s shoulder. “I’ll bring more money with me tomorrow, and make a public donation on behalf of the Cyruzhians –”
“Curse you!” the barman bellowed, “I said no! Stay here the night if you will, but leave my customers alone, and don’t come back!” He then nearly ran back to the bar.
The exchange had gone unnoticed in the cramped and noisy tavern, and Yaroslav returned to his place at the hearth without so much as a person glancing his way. He let out a low chuckle as he resumed his place.
“I figured he’d think it bad for his business if we took to preaching in this little establishment of his …”
“We will come back, reverend sir, won’t we?” Lev asked.
“Of course! There is still much work to be done, and I did not tell the man that we would not return.” He gave the brothers a knowing wink.
“You are wise in the ways of the world, reverend sir,” Brother Gregory said.
“A prior must be, I’m afraid.”
For over a bell the monks sat warming themselves by the fire, and presently the inn became a little quieter and a little less crowded. Some of the folk tottered out the doorway, having had their fill of drink and frivolity. Others passed out on or beneath tables, or dozed at the monks’ feet amidst the thoroughly soiled rushes. By the time another bell had passed, it was almost quiet in the room, such that one could talk without having to raise their voice to be heard. Yaroslav raised his voice nevertheless.
“Gentles!” he clapped his hands together to gain the attention of those clients who still hunkered over tankards of ale and cider. “What say you to a tale before the night is ended?”
There were some murmurings of approval, but no one spoke aloud. The bar owner was nowhere to be seen, and most of his employees had disappeared into the rooms above with more lustful customers.
Yaroslav began his tale with a dramatic battle scene, the famed knights of Barony Fennell making their ultimately fateful charge against the overwhelming Northfield army at Balkura, during the Great Houses War. Many of the patrons leaned forward in their seats, taken up in the story, as Yaroslav recounted Baroness Fennell’s last stand in which she hacked down two score rebel troops before finally being overwhelmed. Yaroslav was a wonderful storyteller, waving his arms in dramatic fashion and describing the grand scenes of knights, ladies and magical creatures. Part way through, the innkeeper returned, and stared in horror when he saw the prior preaching. However, when he tried to speak, several of the customers shushed him. By now, most of them were hanging on Yaroslav’s every word. It was at this point that the prior’s tale began to take on a serious tone. It culminated in another battle, followed by a gripping scene of loss and sorrow.
As Yaroslav finished, he sat down once again. The remaining patrons of the bar stared at him for several menes, then began clapping and pounding the tables. A serving girl appeared with a tray carrying bowls of soup for each of the monks. Lev glanced over at the barkeeper as she handed out the dishes, and saw that he was nodding his head approvingly. Yaroslav took his bowl with a word of thanks to the girl, and smiled appreciatively at the Shattered Spear’s owner.
Lev took his bowl from the girl, making a conscious effort all the while not to look at the cleavage she displayed when she bent over. He set to eating the soup. It was hot, and contained onions and leeks. He had not eaten since mid-morning, and devoured the meagre meal hastily. When all of the monks had finished and set their bowls on the hearth, Yaroslav stretched and yawned mightily.
“Well, brothers,” he said. “I’d say we have done enough for one day. You may say your prayers in silence before sleeping.”
With that, the monks all found open spaces on the floor on which to curl up, wrapped in their black cloaks. Lev found a place near one of the windows and huddled up against the hearth, which was warm from the fire. He closed his eyes and recited the vespers prayers to himself, quietly. Today had been a good day, he thought to himself. This was where he belonged, out among the people of Dargon, rather than locked away in the monastery scriptorium.
Lev woke up some time later when water dripped on his face from a hole in the roof. He was not sure what had woken him up, and for several menes did not even know where he was. Slowly, his mind cleared of the initial grogginess from being roused from deep sleep and he sat up. The inn was quiet, save for the snores of the many people that lay strewn about the tables and the wooden floor. The light by which he could see was cast by the fire, which had petered to glowing embers. He wriggled about amid the floor rushes to avoid the water dripping down from above and lay back down. It was then that he heard the soft sound of someone sobbing.
At first he could not place where the crying was coming from, but after several menes of listening in silence, he determined that the sobs were coming from outside the inn, probably directly outside the window by which he lay.
Now fully awake, Lev gripped his walking stick and pulled himself to his feet, intent on discovering the source of the weeping. Someone was in pain, he felt quite sure. He hoped that he could help. He missed his old self, who had been so enthusiastic about doing God’s work and being a member of the Cyruzhians. Cloistered deep in the monastery scriptorium, Lev had felt that enthusiasm wan as both faith and devotion became the daily norm. In the short time he had been in Dargon, Lev had found that it was not so much a lack of faith as a lack of adventure that had made him feel thus. He had been doubting his choice to be a Cyruzhian monk for some time. He felt restless locked up inside the cloisters of Heart’s Hope Monastery. In Dargon, he had felt renewed happiness with his li fe. Here was a test for him: someone in need for him to help.
He carefully picked his way through the bodies that littered the floor — a task made doubly hard by his lame left foot and reliance on the wooden staff he carried. Eventually he made it to the door and pushed it open. Outside it was as dark as the inside of the inn and still raining. For a moment Lev paused in the doorway, not wanting to get wet again — it felt so good to be dry after being soaked all of the previous day. He sighed, both in admonishment towards his own self-centredness, and at the prospect of the cold water, and moved out onto the dark street. The door swung shut behind him, and he felt his way around the side of the tavern.
He felt his way around the corner and was met by the sound of retching, rather than the crying he had heard before. As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, he was able to make out a form leaning up against the wall, vomiting onto the muddy street. Lev moved closer and noticed the form to be that of a woman. His heart jumped inside his chest and he stopped again. He closed his eyes and listened to his heart pound for a moment.
“Cephas give me strength,” he whispered to himself.
Ahead, he could hear the sobs renewing with the end of the bout of sickness. Lev wondered if she was drunk, and remained motionless, but the girl’s lamentation bore into his heart. He opened his eyes, a sense of duty overtaking his doubts, and moved forward once again.
“What ails you, my lady?” he called softly.
Abruptly the weeping stopped, but the girl’s voice was shaky when she replied. “Who’s there?”
“A friend,” Lev said, thinking to himself all the while how beautiful the girl’s voice was — like soft notes played on a flute. “I hope. I mean you no harm. I heard you crying …”
“There’s nothing you can do,” she moaned. “Leave me be!”
Lev halted his approach only a couple of cubits away from the girl and reached out a hand tentatively. “You have not told me what is wrong. How can you be so sure?”
The girl replied with an odd mixture of laughter and weeping. “What’s the use?”
Lev placed his hand on her shoulder. He wished with all his heart that Yaroslav were with him that moment. Not only did he not know what to do, but he was afraid of the girl because she excited him in a way he hadn’t felt before, and made him ashamed when he remembered his vow of celibacy. Even in the rain and darkness, he could make out her feminine figure. He could feel his knees tremble as he stood there with his hand touching even just her shoulder. She lowered her head in what appeared to be shame, and suddenly Lev thought he knew at least part of what ailed her.
“You work here, don’t you?” he said. “As a … a …” the word caught in his throat.
“As a whore?”
Embarrassed, Lev withdrew his hand. “No, that’s not what I meant … I …”
“Well that’s what I am!” she snapped. “There’s no need for you to be ashamed of it! I’m a strumpet, nothing more!”
“I should be ashamed,” Lev said, “since it is others like me — men, I mean — who have made you thus. You are the one who should not feel guilt, for you are innocent. Only those who violate you will burn.”
“Thank you,” the girl said. “No one’s ever said anything like that to me before.” She took Lev’s hand in hers, and he felt flames of shock and excitement surge through his arm. “But that is not my only problem …”
“Oh?” was all Lev could manage.
“No, it is much worse … for I have not had my flux for several moons, and I have been sick quite often.” Lev looked at her in puzzlement. She took his silence as an invitation to carry on, but when she did, she had to bite back tears. “I think the child of one of those … men grows within me!”
She clung to Lev desperately and fell into violent weeping. Lev froze in panic when she came so close and clutched him. Despite the rain, he could feel her body warm against his, and he did not know what to do about the sensation. At a loss for anything better to do, he cautiously wrapped his free arm around her and patted her back gently. For several menes they stood like that, Lev paralysed with fear, and the girl clinging to him.
After a while she pulled herself away and a thin shaft of light from between the shutters of the nearby window caught her face. Lev was sure she was one of the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen, even though he glimpsed her for but a moment. The image seemed burned into his mind: soft, pale skin, golden hair, large watery eyes and small lips like rose petals.
“I, uh …” Lev stammered, and said the first thing that came to mind to cover his discomfort. “I don’t know your name.”
“I am Samara,” she replied. “What is your name?”
“You’ve been kind to me, which is uncommon,” Samara said. “Let me thank you –”
“Not like that!” Lev backed away from her quickly when he felt her hands touch him. “I’m sorry, but …”
“No, I was stupid,” Samara said. “Who would want a pregnant whore?”
“No, it’s not that,” Lev was trembling now, with both excitement and fear. “Uh … I just shouldn’t, that’s all. I mean, I’d like to …” Lev winced. Cephas’ boot, did he really just say that? What type of fish-tongued idiot was he turning into?
“I understand,” Lev could hear a smile in Samara’s voice. Without warning, she approached again and placed a kiss on Lev’s cheek. “Thank you for talking with me. I should probably get some sleep.”
Lev felt dizzy, and had to lean heavily on his staff to keep from falling down. He mumbled feebly, “Yes, good night …”
Samara left, and after a few moments, Lev’s head cleared. He now felt like jumping and shouting for joy. That one kiss had been one of the most wondrous things he had experienced in his lifetime. Full of energy, he went to stride from the alley but staggered as his lame leg refused to cooperate. Lev paused, reality returning to him. This was no way for a Cyruzhian monk to be thinking and behaving. He had sworn an oath of chastity when he had joined the order. He should not be taking such pleasure in the touch of a woman … and yet what an experience it was.
Lev shook his head and hobbled back to the front of the inn and went back inside. The Cyruzhians were by far the most strict sect within the diverse Stevenic religion. In fact, they prided themselves in their different ways. Lev realised that most Stevenics would wonder what Lev was worrying about. Many of them would probably have jumped at Samara’s offer with great glee. But Lev had been raised in the Cyruzhian tradition and he believed in it. He had sworn his life to live that tradition.
He sat back down on the piece of floor where he had been sleeping and tried to compose himself. He began reciting prayers to himself. He repeated in his mind stories from the Stevene’s life that he had committed to memory. As he prayed, he came to a tale about the Stevene travelling through a field of ripe wheat. Beautiful golden wheat, like the colour of Samara’s hair. He had seen it for only a moment, but it was etched into his mind … smooth, flowing locks …
Lev took a deep breath and resumed his prayers. He silently rehearsed a canticle that told of the Stevene’s death. At his execution, some of his followers had brought roses. Pink roses with soft, perfect petals, dampened by the morning dew, like Samara’s lips. Cephas’ boot! What was wrong with him? He couldn’t even say a simple prayer. How could Lev be a proper follower of the Stevene’s Light, a proper Cyruzhian follower if he couldn’t even think? What was wrong with him? In Heart’s Hope Monastery he had never had problems concentrating on his prayers.
Lev wrapped himself in his cloak and laid down heavily on the rush-strewn floor. He could hear the waves crashing against the shore far away. He tried to concentrate on that sound to lull him to sleep. He had seen the sea once before, a deep, comforting blue. Like Samara’s eyes …