by Jaeden Reppert
As Recorded by Lyndene in Her Manuscript
Autumn leaves always reflected such a beautiful colour; just like fire. Just like amber, she thought. The dirt path she and her horse cantered along wound its way through a copse of trees, each one shaded the golden hue of early autumn. Evening had not yet come, although the sun was slowly beginning its path below the horizon. She still had a few hours of daylight, and another hour or two of twilight, she reckoned. Plenty of time. With luck, she would make it through the gate before it shut at dusk. If she could get through the gate by sundown, she could speak to the Grand Mother tonight, tomorrow morning at the latest, but at least she could pass the night in the safety and comfort of the castle walls. With this in mind, she pushed onward.
This meant going at the same pace as before, however, for both her and her horse had not eaten since morning. They spent the last night on the road, a bedroll spread below the stars, and the day before they managed to get lodging in a small inn in the hamlet of Fellek. She had been on the road for about three months, the longest that she had ever been away from home, and the farthest that she had ever been, since she moved there, from her small village of Fort Polzanni. It was a former trading post of the Rhydyryan Empire, back when they controlled almost everything north of the Shear Mountains; almost everything except the Estian Islands and Lumvindia, of course. As with so many girls who made this pilgrimage, she came from humble backgrounds. Most girls like her offered only their sword and devotion, although she had much, much more than just those assets to give.
Unlike most girls, however, she had something extra to give. She held it tight to her waist as she rode onwards, eager to make good time. She first heard the screaming over her interior monologues as she rode past by an ancient stone circle. The cry was a familiar one: that of a man, and she spurred her horse onward to see what was happening.
Reaching a clearing in the trees, she saw a man, pale with terror and coated in a nervous sweat. His back was to a rock, and though he tried to climb up it, he would not turn to face it, for fear of making himself more vulnerable to attack. Following his gaze, she saw the cause for his horror. A few metres away, on the other edge of the clearing, was a large creature with shaggy, ochre fur. It looked like a dog, although much more feral, and much more ferocious. She recognised it immediately as an Eastern Mountain Warg.
The beast slowed its pace, knowing that it could toy with its prey; a helpless young peasant. As it reared to attack, a yell called out as the girl dismounted her horse, screaming at the beast to divert its attention. Noticing her, the warg turned towards her. Positioning itself, yellow eyes locked with hers, it snarled, drawing back its lips to reveal a row of fangs. In an instant the creature was racing towards her, closing the distance in a moment. The warg leapt up, jumping for her neck, while she knelt down and drew metal. The fearsome look in the beast’s eyes gave way to one of fear, as when it landed, it instantly fell down dead; a straight wound all down its torso, bleeding profusely. She turned towards the warg and, seeing it dead, she began wiping the blood from her blade.
‘It’s alright,’ she called out. ‘It’s dead.’
The man, still shaking, came over towards her, not taking his eyes off the corpse behind her.
‘How… how did you do that? I thought for sure I was done for.’
She finished cleaning her weapon. She sheathed it and stood up, smiling at the man.
‘Not much of a fighter, are you?’, she asked.
‘No, no I am not. I’m a farmer. My name is Padd, Padd Oakes. Thank you, ma’am.’
‘You’re welcome. My name is Anaa.’ She shook his hand. ‘What are you doing out here alone, Padd?’
‘I come from Maycreek, to the southwest. I was on my way to the castle. Well, not the castle itself, as obviously I won’t be allowed in, but to the pub outside the walls.’
Anaa chuckled. ‘You’re going a long way just for a drink. Don’t you have any pubs back in Maycreek?’
‘Well, yes, but I’m going there to work. My da knows the owner, and said I could get work there, at least for a time.’ He wiped some sweat out of his dark brown hair.
‘Listen,’ Anaa said. ‘Eastern Mountain Wargs are normally solitary, but there could be others nearby. Come along, I’ll journey with you. I also have business at the castle.’
She motioned to him to follow, and, leading her horse and now Padd, returned to the path and pushed onwards towards their shared destination.
The journey passed in peace, and the two made good time, talking about the Sisterhood and the ins and outs of running an inn. As they travelled, Anaa eyed Padd as he walked a pace ahead and saw that he wasn’t thin, he was just incredibly lean. His bony face and rustled dark hair gave him the appearance of a beggar, but he could clearly make a fighter if he was trained enough. Anaa mused on this as they continued onward.
Anaa was explaining to Padd how he could fight off a Warg if he ever encountered one again, when the two of them began ascending a small hill.
The first thing she noticed as they trod over the peak were the fires, or, what she assumed were fires. From the mountain ridge beyond the hill she saw flames shoot, seemingly from out of the rock itself. Only after her eyes adjusted did she see that the ‘fires’ were actually the roofs of the turrets. The conical spires shot upwards, and their orange ridge tiles, combined with the rays of the setting sun, gave an impression of a multitude of simultaneous volcanic eruptions shooting from out of the mountain.
The battlements, walls, and edifices inside the castle were all made of the same grey stone that made up the mountain ridge to the east. To the untrained eye, it looked as if the castle was simply dug out of the mountain, but in truth it had been quarried, and the castle was constructed in various stages over the past four or so centuries. The deep grey of the masonry shimmered in the sunlight, and Anaa guessed that it was made out of granite. Good, she thought. That means it may well never crumble.
As the two approached, they passed under two watch towers on the opposite side of the river from the castle. It was not a particularly large river, at least at this point, but it still required a bridge to cross, and it managed to provide enough resources for the castle, village, and outlying farms.
Advancing closer to the town, Anaa could make out soldiers on guard. They wore light armour, not enough for battle, but enough to deal with local rabble or drunken quarrels. The guards wore a hauberk of mail, greenish in tint, over this they had a surcoat in their telltale colours: emerald, with their sigil in amber. Their surcoats and cloaks were emblazoned with their sign: two crossed swords forming a saltire, pointing downward, around them, four diamonds in the shape of a diamond, with the northernmost one being twice the size of the other three. This was the symbol of the Sisters, and it was recognised, revered, and respected throughout the land.
To round off their uniform, the guards had a bronze helmet, painted to look more amber than bronze, and evergreen coloured gloves and boots, so dark that they almost appeared black. They carried a sword at their side and a simple, wooden spear with an amber head. One of the guards saw Anaa enter the town and nodded. Anaa guessed the guard knew why she was here.
As Anaa and Padd entered the village, Padd’s eyes scanned the cluster of buildings: mainly shops and homes, but some warehouses, until he found what he was looking for. It was a dilapidated looking inn, but likely got a lot of business, since it seemed to be the only inn on this side of the walls, Anaa thought. As they neared it, Padd turned to her.
‘Well, this is me, I think’, he said.
‘Will you be okay? Are you sure you can get a job here?’
‘Yes of course! O-or, at least I hope so.’ Padd suddenly did not look so sure.
Anaa gave him a look. ‘What will you do if you can’t get work here? It’s a long way back home for you, and I don’t think I’m going that way again.’
‘Uhhh, well, if I don’t get work here, I guess I’ll have to go home,’ Padd admitted.
‘You’re a good lad, just don’t go out in the woods alone without a weapon again. I hope I’ll see you again.’ She held out her hand to him.
He took it. ‘Thank you, Anaa. You will. Stop by for a drink sometime.’ He let go and, waving to her, he trotted off towards the inn.
She watched him go for a moment, then turned. Facing the bastions, she cantered up towards the castle.
She approached the portcullis, still open, despite it getting late. One of the sentries on the wall saw her approach and called down to her, in a low voice. ‘Hold madam, state your business.’
‘My name is Anaa, I have journeyed here from Fort Polzanni, I want to speak to your leader, the Grand Mother.’
The guard replied: ‘What do you wish to speak to her about?’
‘I want to join you.’
‘The Grand Mother will decide if you have the mettle. Talk to the guard down below, she’ll take you to the Citadel. The Grand Mother should be there. Hurry up though, I need to close the gate.’
As Anaa entered the keep, the portcullis closed behind her. She felt a massive weight taken off her shoulder: she made it in tonight, and that meant she wouldn’t have to wait outside until morning. The guard on the wall called down something to someone out of view. She saw two women approach. One was dressed in a simple dress. The other was dressed in the uniform of the Sisters, her cape floating behind her in a way that caused Anaa to become impatient to join, so she could exude that air.
The girl in the dress took Anaa’s horse and led it to a nearby stable. Anaa nodded in thanks and turned to speak to the uniformed Sister.
‘The Grand Mother has been alerted to your arrival,’ the Sister said. ‘My name is Ålena. Come, I will take you to her.’
Anaa thanked her and followed. They passed through the rows of stables, with dozens of horses being fed, groomed, and shod. Beyond the stables they passed through a collection of forges, each with two blacksmiths: one forging, and one hammering. All of them were making the same thing: a helmet, made of bronze. The face was covered with a mask of the same material. Its eyeslots, nostrils, and a thin bar for a mouth gave it the impression of a demonic face. The helmet itself was a typical halfhelm; the only difference besides the faceguard being the helmet’s elongated back, slightly waving and curling off at the end. Anaa could see that the whole design was meant to imitate a human head, and a bronze one at that. She turned to her guide.
‘Why are those helmets bronze? Wouldn’t steel be better?’
Ålena turned to Anaa and grinned. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll see soon enough.’
Anaa was puzzled by this but, not wanting to make a bad first impression, she kept quiet as they walked on.
They next passed rows upon rows of barracks, until they advanced towards the inner citadel, the original and best defended part of the castle. Next to it, on the left, she saw the largest cathedral she had ever seen. Even from outside, she could faintly hear the hauntingly beautiful choir of Sisters inside singing in the sacred, ancient, and mysterious language of Ecclesiastical Rhydyryan, also known as Prezhyan amongst the clergy who still spoke it. As the sun set over the mountains and the long, dark shadows of the castle and citadel walls fell upon Anaa, she felt a sense of fear and nervousness. Beginning to sweat in the cool air, she saw the inner portcullis open, and three figures stepped out toward her.
The one on the left wore the same armour as the others, although the shoulder pauldrons, gauntlets, and boots were layered with amber coloured metal that Anaa now assumed to be bronze. The woman’s cloak was of a finer quality as well, and the green and amber seemed to be more pronounced. She walked with confidence, and her hand rested on the pommel of her sword. Though she could not see it clearly, Anaa saw enough to notice the engravings on the hilt and scabbard and knew this sword to be of incredibly fine quality. If it was not forged by a master blacksmith, it must have come from somewhere distant. The woman’s long, auburn hair was divided into three ponytails. Her skin was fair and freckled, and her lips curled into a confident smile that brightened her jade eyes.
Like the woman on the left, the one on the right wore a finer set of armour than most, although her set did not have the metallic extremities. Rather, her leather was worn and dusty. As Anaa looked at her, she saw that her cloak and surcoat were the same. Anaa guessed that this woman was travelling somewhere on an errand, and only recently returned. The woman also wore a fine sword on her hip, but she also carried a pouch on her other side that looked like it might contain writing instruments or letters. Under the dust, this woman had fair skin as well, and her chocolate eyes, which matched her hair that was braided into a circle behind her head, scanned the courtyard and fell to Anaa. She smiled at her with a slight grin.
These two women, in all their finery, paled in comparison to the woman in the centre. She walked a pace ahead of the others, though it almost seemed as if she floated, since her garment stretched to a finger’s width above the ground. As far as Anaa could see, she was not armed and wore no armour, although even without it her rank as Grand Mother was obvious. Her clothes, which consisted of a dress, layered beneath a long, flowing garment that sat overtop and had no sleeves, were of the finest material that Anaa had ever seen. Unlike the others, emerald was not the dominant colour, but rather the amber, which shone like a fiery stone and was laced and embroidered with swirls of emerald; intricate designs of a religious nature, and clearly designed to impress. Her hair was black, and slightly began to show grey, but this was invisible to an untrained eye, for most of her hair was covered by a tall, elaborate crown in the shape of an amber-coloured diamond, that sprung out from the collar of her cloak. Her face had some slight lines, but they added to her air of authority, and her steel-grey eyes finalised her look of sheer power and respect.
As she spoke, her voice was calm and motherly, but beneath that sweetness was a force of will that could make even the most unruly fall under her command. ‘I received reports that someone new was coming to join us. It is an honour to meet you.’
The words fell over Anaa, and immediately she felt a frigid fear that shook her to her core: this meeting would decide her whole life, and it all hinged on her first impression. Anaa began to bow.
‘Your Grace and Heavenly Conduit, I am your humble servant, Anaa.’ She took the Grand Mother’s outstretched hand and fervently kissed it. She rose.
‘The honour is mine and ours, Anaa. What is your surname, my dear?’
‘My family are poor, Your Grace, we do not have a surname. I am Anaa. My family moved to Fort Polzanni when I was very young, and I have never lived anywhere else.’
‘Well then’, decreed the Grand Mother. ‘I name you Anaa of Polzanni from here on out. Rise, Sister.’
The red-headed Sister on the left stared at the Grand Mother incredulously.
‘Pardon my questioning Your Grace’s judgment,’ she began. ‘But is it wise to admit a novice into our Order with no tests or qualifications?’
The Grand Mother simply glanced to her left and smiled. ‘Ezira, your fears are well-founded, but rest assured. We will test Anaa, as we do all the rest. Although,’ she said as she turned back towards Anaa and stared at her with an almost all-seeing gaze. ‘You seem… different somehow. You heard your calling and answered it, and here you are, and in better shape than most. Tell me, Anaa of Polzanni, why did you come to us, to join our Order of Sisters?’
‘Because, Your Grace, all of my life, I have wanted to join the Order. It is the most worthy cause for a woman to join, and brings honour not only to ourselves and families, but to the Highest One and Their teachings. Also, I am a skilled swordswoman, and I wish to improve my skills with the best fighters north of the Shear Mountains.’
‘Is there any other reasons?’
‘Well,’ Anaa started to blush. ‘It is nice to be around… esteemed female companions.’
‘Hah, well, men are not usually allowed inside the walls,’ the Grand Mother answered. ‘But every Sister here can enjoy herself and her company all the same…’ She slyly grinned, along with the Sister to the left. The one on the right also smiled, although she did her best to suppress it.
Anaa continued: ‘If it may be of any help towards my application, I also bring an offering to the Sisters.’ With these words she unsheathed the seax. The blade, essentially a long knife or short sword, was patterned with a crossed design on the metal, alternating between lighter and darker shades of silver. The blade-edge was a lighter colour and was sharpened to an immaculate point. The flat side opposite the blade was of the darker shade, and on it was engraved a series of symbols, or a name in an unknown language and script. The short guard was simple, and besides having two small ambers in it, was the least ornate part of the weapon. The haft was made of a polished and smooth mahogany, and the veins in the wood swirled in intricate and ancient patterns. Inside the pommel, at the bottom of the weapon, was a small, spherical sapphire, of the deepest and brightest blue. No bigger than a coin, it was encased in the wood, and finished off Anaa’s seax.
On seeing this, the Grand Mother’s eyes flashed instantaneously, and her lips slightly curled. Slowly, she asked: ‘Where did you come across such a beautiful weapon?’
Anaa sheathed the seax and held it out in offering to the Grand Mother, who took it. The other two Sisters stared at it, then turned back to Anaa. Anaa replied: ‘My family used to live in a settlement south of here, near a pass in the mountains. One day it was attacked by a raiding party of Semilyans. I’m not sure which specific tribe. My father and older brother, along with the rest of the militia, fought them off. The chief fled, and my father and brother pursued him and he was killed, but not before my brother was mortally wounded.’
She paused, she did not realise how much she missed him, but he was the reason she was here. She continued with determination, ‘My father took his knife and carried my brother back to the village where he was buried as a hero. At the funeral, my father turned to me, a young girl of nine winters, and placed the seax in my hands. He looked me in the eyes and told me through the tears we both shed: “Anaa, your brother died protecting everyone he cared for. Every one of those barbarians that you strike down is one less family on this side who has to grieve a lost brother or son. When you come of age, Anaa, protect us. Defend us.” My father and mother could not stand to live in that village anymore, so when the spring came we moved west, and settled in Fort Polzanni. When my parents died, there was nothing left for me there, but everything for me here. I wish to pledge my life to the Sisterhood.’
Anaa’s face was wet with flowing tears by the time she finished. Looking up, she saw the Sister on the right was also weeping. Even the one on the left seemed moved. The Grand Mother herself looked at Anaa with a sense of sorrow and understanding. The Grand Mother stepped forward to Anaa and put her left hand on Anaa’s shoulder. She stuffed the seax inside her outer layer, and then put her other hand on Anaa.
‘My child, you have truly seen misery and heartbreak at the hand of those bastards the Semilyans. You have a passion and desire in you to do good work for us, and I, the Grand Mother of the Sisterhood, hereby name you Sister, and one of us. Kneel.’
At her command, Anaa dropped on one knee. She had done it! She was accepted by the Sisters. The Grand Mother stood over her and spoke in the ancient tongue of Prezhyan: ‘Prezhjahn ihoht mählat, mehanite in ä shozhne Ilekedüh-Ahahdavaha seh! Rise, Sister Anaa of Polzanni, and welcome to the Sisterhood.’
Anaa was elated. She rose. ‘Thank you, Your Grace! I promise not to disappoint the Order.’
The Grand Mother smiled, ‘I believe you, Sister. We will complete your full induction later. For now, get acquainted with the space and meet the other Sisters. Maija here will take you under her wing. She is an exemplar of what a Sister should be.’
Maija, the dusty Sister on the right, looked up and nodded. ‘It would be my pleasure, Anaa. I can teach you everything I know.’
The Grand Mother spoke again: ‘Once you have eaten and settled in, get a good night’s sleep. We’re leaving tomorrow. Maija, take her to get kitted up before anything else. We won’t be able to make a full set for her, but some guard’s armour and a new sword should do.’
Where are we going tomorrow?’ Anaa asked.
‘Hunting’, the Grand Mother grinned, and Ezira chuckled.
‘Get going, you two, and Anaa, welcome again, we will speak soon.’
Anaa and Maija went off towards the blacksmiths. As she looked back, Anaa saw Eriza speak briefly to the Grand Mother and then go off into the cathedral. Anaa turned forward with Maija, ready to begin living her new life at last.
After Anaa, Maija, and Ezira had gone, and the courtyard was empty except for the wind, the air, and the Grand Mother, she reached into her clothes and took out the seax. She held it still sheathed and drew her fingers over the sapphire. It began to glow a pure, magical blue light. The same blue glow that shone from her eyes as she curled her smile into a malicious grin.