February 16, TA 3019/AD 1200
Across the World
The sun rose on a changed world, one which had had its fundamental pieces rewritten. It was as if the very bones of the Earth had been broken and reset, its flesh cut apart and then sewn back together, like the very nature of the world had had a deep and invasive surgery performed by a surgeon that was somehow both remarkably skilled and criminally incompetent, whose hands at one moment had been guided with the utmost care and the next had trembled and shivered like those of an epileptic, the work done at some times with sharp and clean scalpels and at others with pointed rocks and heavy stones. The results were inconsistent: In one place, one’s senses would have to be keen indeed to notice the changes, in another, both blind and deaf to miss them.
Europe, where the first strike that had remade the world had found its mark, had been wounded again, but now the rest of the Earth also felt the blow. The days and weeks and months to come would be a time of change unprecedented and unmatched in the history of the world, when peoples of every nation and tongue would be tested like never before. These times would spawn epic tales of valor, failure and everything in between, written and spoken of by everyone across the whole of the world, from the scribes of the Song Dynasty and the recorders of the Kingdoms of India to the Shamans of Central Asia and the storytellers of wild tribes beyond the Old World. Every culture, every nation, every peoples of the Earth, for centuries to come, would look back upon these times in awe and wonder, those that lived and died within them becoming legends to their descendents.
No singular record could possibly be made of all that came to pass in those times: the mere attempt would fill every library in the world to overflowing. One tale has already begun to be told, that of the war that Sauron and his thralls waged against the nations of Europe and the Near East, and the Last Crusade that was fought against him; before any others are begun, that one will be completed.
And so it is those other stories of this age, of the acts of Emperor Ningzong and Temujin of the Steppes and all the thousands and thousands of others from every corner of the world are beyond its scope, and must be saved for another time. Those tales are no lesser than that already being told, surely, but to tell them all at once is beyond the ability of but a single chronicle. Perhaps one day, those archives will be opened, but for now...
For now, we return to Europe to resume the tale of the Fellowship of the Ring, and all the nations that their quest now touched...
What had once been a great city was now a mass grave. The whole city reeked of death: even with the fell chill that remained in the air, the bodies had begun to decay, the processes of decomposition filling the air with an odor so foul that even the orcs avoided the mounds of rotting flesh whenever they could. This was a difficult task: strewn all across the city were the dead bodies of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Poles, men, women and children alike, all bearing the clear marks of a violent death. The Host of the Udun cared not for the bodies of their fallen foes: the corpses were stripped of weapons, armor and anything else useful before being cast aside, either thrown into the Vistula, which for days after the battle had run red with the blood of the fallen, or piled up in heaps wherever it was convenient.
Within one of these heaps, unbeknownst to the thralls of Sauron, lay the body of High Duke Leszek the White. It was not hard for his body to be missed: It would have been difficult for even his own mother to recognize him, so mangled and ravaged was his body. What seemed to be a hundred different wounds had torn his flesh asunder; most of his bones had been broken, leaving his limbs in twisted and inhuman positions; his flesh had begun to break down, and flies flew about the dead tissues of his body. An inhuman scream seemed frozen on what was left of his face, one of primal fear and rage, directed from beyond the grave at those that had cut him down.
His unseeing eyes would have been filled with tears at the sights around him: the city of Krakow, once the beating heart of Lesser Poland, lay now in the hands of the Legions of Hell. The demons that had brought ruin upon it working to rebuild it in their own image, tearing down what were once Churches and homes and markets and in their place raising up barracks and fortifications. Those few inhabitants of the city that had not been butchered that terrible night or the days that followed were now slaves to the monsters, forced to work to destroy the place that they had once called home beaten until they submitted to the wills of their new masters and fed either nothing at all or food that was not deserving of the name. Theirs was only a slower death.
Leszek would have taken some comfort, perhaps, in knowing that his sacrifice had not been wholly in vain, that his final stand had allowed at least a few to escape this Hell, but Leszek was gone: one more body among thousands that lay exposed to the elements, slowly rotting away. Death had claimed him, as it had so, so many others.. The story of his life had ended that dark morning, in a blaze of glory, perhaps, but ended nonetheless.
Or had it?
The Polish people have an old legend, how the greatest among them never truly die. Instead, it is whispered that the very best and bravest Knights that had ever served Poland are saved from their deaths to join with their brothers beneath the mountain, to await their people’s darkest hour. It is said that there was a hidden cave beneath Mount Pisana in the Tatra Mountains, near the mastiff of Giewont (which many say greatly resembles a sleeping knight), where they waited. Rumor told of the secret tunnel that lay somewhere in the Koscieliska Valley, where one could go for themselves and see where the great army rested. Tales told of shining golden armor, of arms the likes of which the world has never seen, and of beautiful horses with golden shoes waiting with them. It was said that they would wake at the time of a great battle, when thunder shook the heavens and the earth, and on that day they would ride out to fight for Poland once more.
Leszek, certainly, met the criteria for joining them: already, his sacrifice was known to all that had managed to escape the Hell of Krakow, and his tale was rapidly spreading across Mazovia, Galicia Volhynia and Greater Poland and beyond, told by the remnants of his people. His name was now joined to the other great legends of the Polish people, like King Krakus or Piast the Wheelwright, his deeds of valor held up as an example to all that would call themselves Polish. But the story of the Sleeping Knights was only an old legend, was it not?
In earlier days, the tale would have been just that: a tale. A comforting story told by a people beset by enemies, a fairy tale that only children could ever truly believe in. None took the tale very seriously, and over time a number of jokes had sprung up around the legend: a mysterious man shows a villager the Sleeping Knights, telling them the legend...and the villager asks what in the world the Knights were waiting for, for Poland was (insert current crisis). That was what the tale of the Sleeping Knights was: a butt jokes. A cute story, nothing more.
But now...now, the world was remade, becoming a place where every tale and story might carry a grain of truth somewhere within. The legend, like so many others across the world, could now come to pass. Oh, not perfectly: as with most of the tales that came true in these times, there were many different variations on the story, and all of them strained against each other to become the one that would be told. Details blurred together and were lost or altered in the process, the legend ultimately becoming not quite the one that was usually heard. But the heart of the story remained utterly true: slumbering Knights, hidden below the earth, waiting for Poland’s darkest day.
And so it was that below Wawel Cathedral, below the ruins of desecrated Krakow, in the cave where the dragon Smok Wawelski was said to have dwelled, a strange glow began to emanate. It was golden in hue, bathing the dark cavern in light like that of the dawn. If one had looked within the cave, they would have seen the outlines of an army slowly become visible, the golden light shaped into swords and armor, men and horses. A great army began to take form below the feet of the orcs that labored above.
For the moment, they still slumbered. Their day had not yet come: the night that now fell across Europe would grow deeper still in the approaching days and weeks and months. Only in the very darkest hour would the Sleeping Knights awake, and not a moment before. But in that hour of true need, when the shadow stood at every side, when all hope had been lost, when the people of Poland stood at the precipice of annihilation, the Sleeping Knights would hear the call to battle.
And in that hour Leszek the White and all that fell by his side would ride again.
Acre, The Kingdom of Jerusalem
In the seven years that he had served as Grand Master of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, Gilbert Horal had imagined many, many potential disasters. A veteran of many campaigns, the Spaniard knew that the strategic situation of the lands placed under his protection was bleak at best. The Outre-Mer (French for ‘Overseas’) states, the lands that the Crusaders had managed to reclaim from the Muslims, were a shadow of their former selves: Jerusalem had been lost, the Kingdom established to protect it barely managing to cling to the coast; Antioch was little more than a city-state, and the same was true for the County of Tripoli; The County of Edessa was gone entirely. The only exception to the rule was realm that predated them all, Cilician Armenia, founded by Armenian refugees fleeing the Turks. This New Armenia, as it was called, had survived, even thrived, becoming a full Kingdom, but that was not necessarily good news: their King, Levon, held barely-veiled ambitions of conquering his former allies.
But the Cilician Armenians were the least of Gilbert’s worries. Saladin, Sultan of the Ayyubids, had a mere decade before nearly driven the Crusaders into the sea, the efforts of Richard the Lionheart and the other members of the Third Crusade only barely managing to hold onto anything at all. But in the decade since, the armies of the Crusaders, of France and England and the Holy Roman Empire, had left for home, leaving the Outremer states to defend themselves against continued Muslim attacks.
There was some hope on that front, at least: internal feuds had kept Saladin’s successors from finishing what he had started: The heirs of the founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty, like the Generals of Alexander the Great before them, squabbled and fought over the empire that their father had left them. For seven years since the death of the Sultan, the brothers and sons he had installed as Emirs over various territories had maneuvered against each other, in both each other’s courts and on the battlefield, trying to bring the realms of the Ayyubid dynasty back under one banner: their own.
But this external respite had seemed only to allow for internal problems to begin rearing their heads. Court politics had made the journey from Europe, bringing with it all the instability and infighting that it was known for. The Throne of Jerusalem had been disputed among various men almost from the moment that it had been established, who sat upon it becoming an almost-constant political struggle that robbed the small realm of valuable strength and unity. After years of machinations (and several near-Civil Wars) the matter seemed settled by the marriage between King Aimery of Cyprus, and Isabella of Jerusalem, widow to Humphrey IV of Toron, who had inherited the Kingdom on the death of Baldwin IV.
At first glance, not worth worrying about. But it was Aimery’s second marriage, and Isabella’s fourth. Not to mention that the Queen was half the age of the King, and that her previous husbands had respectively been captured on the field of battle, assassinated, and “fallen out of a window.” For the moment, it seemed that Aimery and Isabella’s hold on the throne was secure, but Gilbert was well aware of how quickly that could change: It would only take one man screaming “Illegitimate!” at the top of their lungs for the realm to collapse into chaos once more.
And even if Aimery and Isabella managed to keep their tenuous hold on the throne, or some other claimant managed to take it peacefully, the situation would remain utterly dire. It was a matter of simple mathematics: for every soldier that the Christians possessed, the Muslims possessed several. There just weren’t enough men to hold the Outremer without support from the rest of Christendom, and that aid could hardly be relied upon: such things came at the convenience of the lords of Europe, not at the request, or indeed begging, of the Christians of the Holy Land.
And the men that were on hand to protect the Holy Land were second sons and fortune seekers, those that had come looking to create their own holdings, out of the shadow of elder brothers and the nobility; hardly the best of the best. And the arms and weapons that they carried were not of the highest quality. Indeed, if they had brought equipment with them at all from home, they had come with old family swords and rusty mail, weapons and armor that were oftentimes in desperate need of repair. The men thusly relied mostly upon what equipment they could find here, but the armory of Acre, like those in the other remaining Crusader cities, housed weapons scavenged from battlefields, dredged out of rivers or pulled out of the desert sands, and sometimes all three. Most of them were ancient and/or falling apart. It wouldn’t surprise Gilbert if at least some of the spears sitting in storage, covered in cobwebs and dust, dated back to the times of the Savior, or even the Maccabees. It was possible, maybe even likely, that some unlucky fellow would have to go into battle wielding a Roman lance more than a millenium old as a weapon.
What was left, then, to hold back the tide of the Ayyubids? By the Grand Master’s count, there were two forces with both the skill and the equipment to do so, three if one counted the young Teutonic Order (which the Grand Master did not: they did little more than control Acre’s port tolls). There were Gilbert’s own Templars, of course, well funded by considerable donations from various monarchs that appreciated their goal to defend the Holy Land, their numbers filled out by good, pious and courageous men that had cast aside all other ambitions upon taking their oaths to enter the order, renouncing all titles and holdings they might have pursued to instead give their whole hearts and bodies and souls to the cause.
Yes, the Templars could hold meet the Ayyubids in battle. They were the elite shock troops of the Crusaders, soldier monks whose faith was shield, armor and sword. They were fearless, the dread of death holding no power over them, for what better way to die was there to die than in the service of the Lord? The very tenets of the order explicitly forbid retreat unless outnumbered threefold, and even then only at the commanders orders or if the Templar banner fell; to a Templar, it was better to die a martyr than to sound the retreat.
Success breeds imitation, and the near-legendary success of the Templars had bred several such attempts at duplication, the most successful of which were the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, typically simply called the Knights Hospitaller in conversation. Admittedly, the Hospitallers were not simply an attempt to copy the Templars (the former had been founded a full century earlier, and had already had Papal Recognition for a decade by the time the Templars had been sanctioned) but only in the last few years had they truly begun taking up arms in defense of the Holy Land: they had been founded as an Order of healers, not soldiers.
Recent events had changed that: The Holy Father frowned heavily upon some of the steps that Gilbert had taken to maintain the fragile truce with Saladin’s heirs, siding with those that believed his desire for peace showed collusion with the heathens. The Pope believed that if the Templars could not be fully trusted to make war with the Muslims whenever the call came, then another military order of the Church was needed.
And so it was that the Hospitallers, who had been founded with the goal of caring for those making the long journey to Jerusalem, had taken the final few steps to becoming a fully militant Holy Order: Armed escort of pilgrims and military protection of the Holy Places, before now always something of a secondary goal, now came to the forefront of their duties. Not that there were many pilgrims to protect these days, with Jerusalem in Muslim hands, but the point stood: Grand Master Geoffroy de Donjon was head of a military order.
The rivalry between the two Holy Orders was at least at a low point, both having no effort to spare for each other with the Muslims breathing down their necks. The sporadic conflicts with the heathens made sure that they instead focused on their true enemy: The Templars did all they could to hold onto Acre, the last lynchpin holding the Kingdom of Jerusalem while the Hospitallers did the same at the castle of Crac de I’Ospital, protecting all that remained of the County of Tripoli further north. With the manpower that they had, that was more-or-less all that they could do.
That, and wait for the hammer to fall. Another war, one fought against the full might of the Ayyubids, was always at the forefront of the minds of the people of the Outremer. On that front, the recent news was disheartening at best: the brother of Saladin, a competent leader and general in his own right, seemed to be on the verge of consolidating their hold over all the realms of the Ayyubids, about to unite the Muslims once more. Once the last of his rivals fell, he would be looking for his next target, and it did not take a genius to know where his gaze would turn.
And so the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon waited, along with the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem and the nascent Order of Brothers of the German House of St Mary in Jerusalem, and all those that they had been charged with protecting. They tried to go about their usual business, but always, they waited. They waited for two things: for the next war, the one that might well throw them into the sea; and for aid from afar, which they knew was their only chance for surviving the coming storm.
Unknown to Grand Master Gilbert Horal, and indeed the whole of the Outremer, both would come from unlikely sources.
The man known to Europe as Saphadin stood victorious. It had taken seven years, but Al-Adil, Sword of the Faith, brother to Saladin, had won the title of Sultan. His nephew Al-Afdal had finally surrendered, besieged in Cairo after his army had been shattered in open battle near Bilbeis. After the better part of a decade spent monitoring shifting alliances, placating allies and fighting battles, the realms of Saladin would finally be reunified, and under a fit and capable ruler if Saphadin did say so himself.
Tomorrow, the Sword of Faith would be proclaimed to the people as Sultan of the Ayyubids, a mere formality, certainly, but one that would (hopefully) dissuade any further attempts at rebellion by his various nephews, children and siblings, finally establishing true peace. It was to be a splendid affair, a show of his prestige and power in order to sell the image he wished to project, that of the divinely chosen ruler of the Ayyubids. To that end, he had briefly considered bringing the Holy Banner of the Prophet with him for this triumph, if only for the symbolic value: The imagery of legitimacy and divine favor that the Sacred Standard could have given him was not to be underestimated.
But no. He had left the Sancak-I Serif in Damascus, along with the rest of the Prophet’s relics. It felt simply...wrong to use such things against other believers, especially those that were his own kin. What message would that give to his people, if he attacked his own nephew with one of the Prophet’s swords or bows or spears? That Al-Afdal was some heathen to be cast out? That Saphadin himself was a great warrior in the likeness of his brother? That he was readying for the next Jihad against the infidel invaders that had seized the coast?
The second of these points was entirely true: Al-Adil was talented in the arts of war, having served as his brother’s second for decades, and his own skills were not to be ignored. But the other two points were not ideas that he wished to foster in his people: For half his life, Saphadin had been fighting, almost without ceasing, against other Muslims and against Crusaders and against wild tribesman, sometimes all at once. Quite frankly, he was tired of war, tired of endless battles, tired of killing and tired of death. Now, finally, the wars were over: He and his brother had won them all. The man called the Sword of Faith intended to win the peace as well.
Already, the soon-to-be Sultan of the Ayyubids was making plans. The treasury had to be refilled, the preceding decades of warfare having left it nearly bare. Peace with his neighbors had to be preserved, of course: He wished to normalize relations with what the Christians called the Outremer, if only to prevent an new Crusade from waging war against him. There were still factions within the court that had to be brought into line, preferably without force, neglected fortifications to be rebuilt, neighboring powers to placate.
But finally, finally, finally, there was not a war to fight. Al-Adil would have time to carry out his consolidations, relatively without fear of outside threats. A new Crusade looked unlikely, and the Outremer itself was weak; the other Muslim powers dared not challenge him; the Byzantines were shadows of their former selves. Externally, for the moment, there was not a threat to the realms of the Ayyubids, something that hadn’t been the case since Saladin’s conquests had first begun, all those decades ago. Saphadin smiled at his fortune, continuing his plans to rebuild his war-torn nation.
For unless an army of demons crawled out of the sands of Arabia, he would finally have peace.
In Paris, King Philip II was readying for war. The call for men had been sent out just over a week prior, mere hours after he had first received the missive from the Holy Father. The early signs of response were promising: nobles from across France had committed themselves to the cause, with several thousand men already promised to him and more expected in the coming weeks. From Toulouse to Flanders, the men and knights of France had heard the call, and from Toulouse to Flanders they were answering.
The lords in the southeast, those nearest to the new mountains that had sprung out of the Alps, were of course the most enthusiastic in their response, with men like Duke Odo III of Burgundy having already begun levying men even before Philip’s call had gone out, terrified of the tales that came from over the border in the Holy Roman Empire. In Champagne, older plans for Crusades to the Holy Land had been quickly repurposed: Theobald III, Count of Champagne, who had finally began the assembly of the Fourth Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land the previous year, now redoubled his efforts to build up his army and those of his allies for this altogether more imminent threat, aided by the fervent preaching of Fulk of Neuilly. All across France, similar scenes occurred, lords calling up their men to fight. Those same lords were also sending men to their King for the same purpose.
The outskirts of Paris had quickly turned into a massive army camp as men had begun to first trickle and then flood in from across the Kingdom. They came in dozens or in hundreds, alone or in pairs, some armed, some armored, some with only the clothes they had. They were soldiers answering the call of their King, young men seeking glory, nobles seeking favor. From all across the land, from every walk of life they came, the encampment outside Paris slowly swelling with each passing hour.
The scene was one that was hopefully being reflected across all of Europe. The King of France took heart in knowing that he was not alone in answering the call so early: already, the lords of the Holy Roman Empire, both those sworn to Philip of Swabia and those that were allies of Otto of the House of Welf were levying their troops, and not to fight each other: the fragile truce between the two so-called Emperors holding fast. Travellers said that the same was happening in Denmark, in Castile and Aragon, in Pomerania and Bohemia. And of course, not even far from where Philip stood, the English were raising their own armies, on both their island and in what they called the Angevin Empire on the mainland.
The King of France’s smile dimmed slightly at that thought. Philip’s relationship with the English had been...tenuous, as of late. He had fought wars with both Henry II and Richard the Lionheart over the western lands of France, especially the region of Normandy, and the battles that they fought besides each other during the Crusade could not fully blot such memories out. There was little love between the two nations. His final meeting with the Lionheart had proven that: he and Richard had simply stood shouting terms at each other from a ship deck and the banks of the Seine, trying to create lasting peace between their lands. The results of that meeting had been less than productive, establishing only an at-times barely holding truce.
Philip was unsure of what to make of Richard’s successor, John. He barely knew the man, having not met him face-to-face in over a decade, when he had supported Richard and John’s rebellion against their father to force Henry II, one of the countless attempts that Philip had made over the years to weaken the English. Even now, the King of France was the main sponsor of Arthur of Brittany’s claim to the English throne, thereby directly supporting a rebellion against John’s reign.
That matter, at least, was mostly settled, negotiations the previous month more-or-less ending Philip’s support of Arthur in exchange for John ending his support of independence among several of Philip’s vassals. The Crusade had taken the whole of their attention since: Over the last week, they had exchanged a few short missives, swearing on various things that these new mobilizations were not aimed at each other and generally trying to maintain the existing truce while both continued their mobilizations. At the very least, Philip was encouraged knowing that John knew there were larger events afoot than restarting the war between their nations, but the short messages that had been sent between the two had done little to tell Philip about John himself. Much could change in a decade: who exactly was the man who now ruled across the Channel?
That question would be answered soon enough. As a sign of mutual trust and goodwill (and to allay the suspicions that both men had of each other), it had been agreed that the Kings of England and France would travel to the council in Rome together, once they had both completed their initial preparations. Philip would have plenty of time then to work out just where he stood on this King John. Until then, the King of France would have plenty of things to keep his mind occupied.
His favorite of these was overseeing the training of the new meat, the turning of the roughest and rawest recruits into a real and capable soldiers. Physically, these men were highly variable, ranging all across the spectrum of strong and weak, lean and corpulent, tall and short. Not that Philip would turn any of them away, of course, being loathe to throw away freely offered service (knowing well that he would need every man that he could get). Besides, physical ability was not the first thing that the King of France looked for in a soldier.
Philip had seen, in his many, many campaigns that, while strength of the body was a key attribute on the battlefield, it was strength of the mind, heart and soul that more often carried the day. The world’s strongest man could be cowed easily if he had nothing to fight for; the world’s weakest would put the fear of God into men if he was fighting for everything. The key to warfare, he had found, was in motivating the men to willingly kill for and, if it came to it, to die for their cause. Once sufficiently inspired, all other things need in battle would seem to come naturally.
To that end, Philip had spent much of his time since the assembly had begun in the Paris encampment, encouraging the men that had come from all different walks of life to join him in the new Crusade. As he journeyed through the camp, surveying the assembly, the King of France worked to inspire them to the greatness that would be needed in the coming war, projecting an image of glory, courage and might that he hoped would encourage all those who saw to follow him.
It was not he alone that provided the imagery. He had had the Sacred Standard of the Oriflamme, the Banner of the King, removed from the tomb of St Denis, the Patron of France, in order to inspire the men. It now stood proudly besides Philip, held high as a call to all who saw it to take up arms in defense of Christendom, as a call to uphold the legacy of France. And that legacy was a great one indeed: whenever and wherever that the Cross had been threatened, good Frenchmen could be found defending defending it. From the times of King Clovis they had kept true to the faith, and other great Kings like Charles Martel and Charlemagne had seen made sure that that legacy remained unstained.
Now it was the turn of King Philip II. But at such thoughts his heart became heavy: the challenge he would soon face would surpass that of any that had ever come before, and doubt crept into the back of his mind about his ability to carry the weight placed upon him. He had fought for the faith before, of course, in the Crusade a decade before, but this coming war, judging from the Holy Father’s missive and the ever-increasing reports coming from the southeast, would make that campaign seem like a small skirmish. Charles Martel had stopped the Muslims; Charlemagne had subdued the Saxons; Philip II would have to face the Devil themself.
These things weighed heavily upon Philip’s mind and spirit, not entirely filling, certainly, him but still working to increase his worries and fears. Did he have the faith, the courage, the strength and the guile to stand besides the two greatest leaders that the French people had ever known? Could he even come close to them? For centuries, their legacies had been the ruler by which all Kings of France had been measured, and those Kings had done all that they could do to come even close to their likenesses. Did he have what it took to live up to them?
Even now, Philip wore the sword Joyeuse, said to be the blade of Charlemagne himself, with some legends claiming that the spear that had pierced Christ’s side had been used to forge it. These days, it was a largely ceremonial blade, used by his father and grandfather at their respective coronations, having not seen combat for decades, if not centuries. He had taken it out of storage for the same reason he had taken out the Oriflamme, for its value in inspiring those that saw it. But now, Philip felt as if there were more to it than that.
Idly, the King of France pulled Charlemagne’s sword from its sheath, examining the ancient weapon. It felt almost...strange, in his hands. He would be hard pressed to describe the sensation: it felt light, as if it was made from the air itself, but at the same time heavy, like it could split stone if even lazily swung. Yet it didn’t feel wrong: the pommel felt perfectly at home in his grip, and the blade almost seemed to sing to him, ready to be used. Philip wasn’t sure, but there was a feeling within him, one that he couldn’t quite put into words. It was almost as Joyeuse itself were alive, as if the spirit of its previous wielders resided within it, calling on him to uphold the legacy that they had written.
Resheathing the ancient blade, Philip pushed such thoughts aside. The feeling didn’t quite go away, settling into the back of the King’s mind, silently waiting to be called on as needed. But a sword, no matter who it had once belonged to, was still simply a sword. The greatest sword in the world would be useless in the hands of a fool. It was the man who wielded it that mattered. The sword had been wielded by a great man before, by Charlemagne, the founder of an empire the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Rome.
Now, King Philip II of France hoped and prayed that it would be wielded by another in the coming days.
King John of England was tired. For the past week, he had been riding across England, crisscrossing east and west, north and south as he tried to raise up an army to answer the Pope’s Call to arms. He had hoped that his haste in mobilizing his people would be able to win him some respect from both his own court and the other nobles of Europe. In theory, having a battle-ready army before the other Kings of Christendom were more than partway through their own preparations would win him favor with the Holy Father, gaining him praise for his zeal and the honor that would with the Pope’s blessing.
But his plans had hit quite a snag: it had quickly become evident that his subjects did not share his enthusiasm for this new Crusade. They were slow to believe the stories that trickled across the Channel from France, and few were eager to follow a King that they held little-to-no respect for on what they viewed as a pointless and inconsequential errand. As a result, the mood in England towards the call to arms ranged from apathetic at best to almost outright hostile at worst. A few places dropped the ‘almost’ out of the latter phrase: Nottingham, in particular, had been...eventful. The King of England had made a mental note to deal with both the apparently utterly incompetent local Sheriff and the merry band of hecklers and subversives personally at a later date.
Greater success was reported in his French holdings. The people there, it seemed, were much more willing to believe the realness of the threats arrayed against them, and William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke (who had gone ahead into the Angevin Empire while the King stayed in the homeland) was proving to be a more popular and more effective recruiting figure than John was. This news disheartened John more than it should have: despite the threat of the Earl’s popularity eclipsing his own, Pembroke was more loyal than most men in the Kingdom, and the dire situation had no place in it for pride. But being outshone by a subordinate did little to lighten the King’s spirits.
Still, John was nothing if not resilient, and persisted in his mission, continuing his efforts on the faint hope that each town would be more receptive than the last. And then, more often than not, he would have those hopes dashed. Still, there were a few other options open to him: If he could not find willing men in his own realm, then he would have to cast his net further afield. Over the next week or two, he would embark on a trip to Wales, putting his case before the lords of Gwynedd and Deheubarth, before a short jaunt across the sea to rally the Lordship of Ireland to his cause, all three being at least nominally his vassals. After that was done, he would sail south, finally joining with Philip II of France for the journey to Rome for the council.
With such a vast distance to be covered in such a short time, John did his best to get his rest in now. Glastonbury Abbey was as good a place as any to do so: It was a holding of one of his relatively reliable allies, a certain Savaric FitzGeldewin, who had traded the city of Bath to the late King Richard for the rights to the Abbey. He had hoped that by seizing the abbey he would finally be able to end the longstanding feuds between England’s Bishops and its Monastics. That had not been the case: instead of a consolidation of power, a long and complicated series of political maneuvers had followed, and now Savaric awaited the Pope’s final judgment on the issue. Not that the King cared much for Church politics: what it all boiled down to was that, for the moment, Savaric remained an ally of John, if only because the King could offer him some form of protection if worst came to worst.
And so it was that the King of England found himself at Glastonbury Abbey this night, trying futilely to sleep before his journey would resume in the morning. It was by no means an uncomfortable place rest, far from it, but still John was...uneasy, being here. There were certain legends about this place, legends that troubled the current King of England. After the monastery had burned in 1186, and the resulting lack of pilgrims had begun to drain the Abbey’s coffers, a Royal Clerk named Giraldus had started a rumor that the tomb of the legendary King Arthur had been found during the renovations. It was a fraudulent claim, of course, a stunt to increase the number of pilgrims and raise funds for the restoration of the monastery, but still: John could almost hear the whispers behind his back, with the King of England being compared unfavorably to Arthur as well as his brother.
John ground his teeth at those thoughts. Yes, peasants, unloyal nobles, hecklers and liars, compare him to two half-mythical Kings, one of whom might not even exist. That was fair of them. It was not as if the weight of Richard’s legacy alone was already doing its level best to crush him under its weight: add Arthur’s as well. Truly, John needed to strain himself further, especially in such a time as this. Truly, putting him under even more stress would allow him to be a better King.
With such ideas dominating his mind, John found rest to be impossible, despite his best efforts. He tossed and turned in his bed, sleep remaining ever elusive. Thoughts of his brother kept him awake most nights: they were joined now by thoughts of Arthur. Arthur the monster hunter. Arthur, who had driven back the Saxons. Arthur, whose achievements no mortal man could ever hope to match. Arthur, who they compared to John anyways, and never favorably. Whatever small thing those that whispered behind his back could use, they used. It made John’s blood boil.
So consumed was John by these thoughts that it took him a moment to realize that he was no longer in the bedchamber that had been arranged for him. In fact, he was nowhere within the Abbey at all: rather, he stood overlooking it from the top of the nearby Tor, the terraced hill which stood not quite a mile distant from where he had been. And his nightclothes were gone, replaced by the armor he wore in battle; but his sword did not hang by his side.
John’s muscles tensed as he pondered this strange turn of events, his heart falling into his stomach. Yes, he had been restless, but not so much as to rise from his bed, put on his armor and hike up the hill. And this was no dream: he could feel a slight wind upon his face, the cold of the night air, could smell the dew on the grass. No, there was more at work here than his own wandering mind. Nervously, the King of England looked about himself, fear building in his heart. Something else nagged at his thoughts, something very important that he was missing, and the feeling only made his heart fall yet further.
It took a moment to remember the critical information that the Tor was topped by a wooden church, yet the hill he stood upon, overlooking Glastonbury, had nothing atop it at all. He looked all around him, seeing the village below and the rest of the familiar geography, confirming his position, yet the Church of St. Michael remained entirely absent. And that was not all: as he looked at the horizon, he noticed that the entire sky was as black as pitch, with not a single star to be seen, despite the clearness of the night.
“What devilry is this?” he wondered aloud, his hand clutching for where his sword should have been sheathed, panic starting to build within him.
“It is not devilry at all.”
John whirled around, desperately trying to draw a sword that wasn’t there. Sitting on a stone behind him (which had not been there a moment before) sat an unassuming blonde woman in simple dress. She paid no attention to the King of England, instead focusing on what was in her hands: a long tapestry, which she wove with a skill and speed the likes of which John had never seen. The rapidly completed cloth fell in folds to her feet, shimmering as if the strings had been made of precious metal, and the woman, too, seemed to shimmer and glow, her image wavering in and out of focus like a candle in a breeze.
Seemingly taking notice of John for the first time, she glanced up from her work, looking the King of England over with a quick and critical eye. Nodding to herself, she set the end of the tapestry down in her lap, folding her hands over it before speaking again.
“Unless you believe me to be a devil. I do not think of myself as one, but you might think differently.”
“Who are you?” John demanded, hoping that whoever she was, she didn’t hear the fear in his voice or see the quiver on his face.
A half grin appeared on the woman’s face. “I am just a humble recorder,” she said, “here to show you what you refuse to see.”
With a flourish, she grabbed the tapestry from her feet and shook it out into the wind. John watched as the glimmering banner unfurled, unfurled and kept unfurling, becoming far longer than it should have been, wrapping itself around the hilltop in a wide circle around John and the woman before him. It seemed to hang from the air itself, rippling in the gentle breeze yet not falling to the ground, the whole thing shining like a sunbeam shining through a window of stained glass.
Despite himself, John found himself looking at the images that the tapestry portrayed, which themselves moved and shifted, the characters on them seeming to come alive. The tapestry showed a great many men, of a great many different walks of life doing a great many different things, yet each and every scene, each and every participant in them, was somehow vaguely familiar to John, their faces stirring his memories….
With a start, the King of England realized that the tapestry’s tale was his own, and it was showing the whole of his life, from his birth to this very moment. There was he was coming out of the womb, on Christmas eve of 1166, and there was him being given to the care of his mother’s wet nurse not long after. There were his early lessons at Fontevrault Abbey, under Ranulf de Glanvill, and his travels with his father during the rebellion of his elder brothers, followed by his expedition to Ireland. It showed the political crisis that had developed when Richard had left on his Crusade, the war against the French that had broken out upon his return, the succession crisis after his death. All this and more it showed, all in detail that not even John’s own memory could compete with. And all of this terrified him.
“Who. Are. You.” John whispered in awe and fear, eyes wide in shock. The woman simply smiled.
“I told you, John of England: I am but a recorder of histories. Of late, I have taken particular interest in your, and I must say: I do not like where it seems to be headed, and neither should you.”
The woman’s hands moved faster than John’s eyes could follow, and in seconds she had produced a new length of cloth. The woman held out her hands, offering John the piece. Taking the cloth, the King of England saw upon it himself, lifeless and broken. Around his body stood many men clad in the clothes and armor of nobility, some that he recognized, most that he did not. The scene on the cloth shifted and moved as he watched, and the men standing over his image kicked and spat on it, disgust on their faces, cursed on their tongues.
“What it this?” John demanded, trying to tear the offending rag to pieces, his hands ripping at seams that didn’t seem to be there. The fear he held for the woman quickly morphed into rage. When the cloth refused to break, he threw it to the ground, howling in rage, crying out: “What witchcraft is this!?”
“It is what is to come, John of England,” the woman spoke, again not looking up from her work. “It is the tapestry that I will have to weave, if you do not abandon the path you walk.”
“Speak clearly, woman! Not in riddles!” John strode towards the woman, an enraged look on his face. He moved as if to grab her, but without so much as glancing upwards the woman made an offhand gesture towards the King of England, and the man felt himself become frozen where he stood. John tried to move, but found his whole body unresponsive, as if gripped in great iron chains. He struggled against the invisible bonds, unable to so much as squirm in their grasp.
“I do not speak in riddles.” The woman set down her work again, now standing to face the King. Her gaze fell upon the man before her, who in an instant was cowed, John’s rage vanishing like dew on grass, replaced once more with paralyzing fear. The woman continued to speak.
“What I say should be clear to any who hear it. You are simply too deaf to listen.”
The woman motioned with her hands, and John was unfrozen, falling to his knees. The tapestry moved closer, the woman now examining it. She spoke again as she did so, still not turning towards the King.
“I show you only what has been, and what is likely to be.” The woman’s tone was neutral, but still the King of England flinched when he heard it. “Whatever you see upon my tapestry is what you have put or may yet put upon it.”
With a gesture of her hands, the woman pulled the tapestry yet nearer, putting it before both herself and John.
“I have seen your history, John of England. I have seen your arrogance,” she indicated the scene depicting his expedition to Ireland, which showed John pulling on and laughing at the beards of the locals.
“I have seen your deceit,” the woman pointed to another part of the tapestry, where John spoke to the people, telling them that his brother had died in the Holy Land, and that John himself should be crowned King as a result.
“I have seen your wrath,” the woman gestured towards an earlier scene, one from his childhood, portraying a young John bitting at the fingers of a retainer that had angered him.
“I have seen all of this and more. And I and those that work with me to protect this world dread them, because in time they will spell doom for you and your whole nation. We had hoped that the people of England, that you, could be relied upon in the coming war. But so far, it seems that we are mistaken.”
“What are you saying? That I am weak? That I am unworthy of the crown?” There was some bite in John’s voice, but there was far more fear.
“I am only telling you what I have seen, John of England,” the woman replied, her tone still quite neutral. “Do you believe that the crown is yours by right to have? You would do well to remember that you are a fifth son, King by no right but default.”
“I am a fifth son, yes,” John said, his voice almost pleading, “But I was my father’s favorite. And of my elder brothers, one died an infant and two others rebelled against our father. Richard...Richard was better than me. Even I do not deny that, but to say that the crown is not mine by right by his death without heir is-”
“The crown is yours by right of lineage, not right of action,” the woman interrupted, shaking her head. “You have done nothi-”
“No!” John cried out, standing once more. The woman’s only reaction to the outburst was a slightly raised eyebrow.
“No!” John repeated, his breath becoming hard. “No! I have not done nothing! I have not done nothing! I have fought dozens, no, hundreds of battles, and been victorious! I have conquered castles! I hav-”
“Such actions,” the woman spoke again, annoyance and frustration tingeing her voice, “do not make you worthy of a crown. It is one matter to win a city; it is another entirely to win the hearts of its people. And your actions in Ireland and while your brother was on his Crusade have proven to us that you are incapable of the latter.”
“Neither of those were my fault!” screamed John, his face red. “Hugh de Lacy sabotaged me in Ireland, and Longchamp was an incompetent that had to be removed from power! I am blameless in what you accuse me of!”
“And therein lies your doom, John of England!” The woman’s voice had developed a dangerous edge, and she took a step closer to the King, who immediately drew back in fear. “In that you refuse to acknowledge your faults! You would walk open-eyed to destruction, because you cannot see what all others do! That you! Are! To Blame!”
The woman paused. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath before opening them again. In an instant, her expression had returned to a neutral one, and now she picked up the end of the tapestry once more, resuming her work. John, for his part, had toppled to the ground, hands raised in terror, a wide look of fear in his eyes. It was a long moment before she spoke again.
“You push fault upon all others, refusing to see your own. Yes, you are a King, by right of lineage. But you have yet to become one by right of deed. You are like a petulant child who throws a tantrum whenever they do not get their way. And that is why you are on the path to destruction, John of England. And the fault is no one’s but your own.”
Another long silence. Finally, the woman resumed speaking.
“This world has soldiers. It has great warriors, and strategists, and engineers. What it needs are Kings. It needs great leaders of men, who can inspire those that follow them to new heights, champions for others to rally behind. The French have one in Philip II. The Germans shall have Philip of Swabia and Otto IV. Who will the English have? You? A man who they see as greedy and cruel, petty to the extreme, the pale shadow of his predecessors? Is that who they will die to follow? Who they will fight to protect? Who they will follow through the gates to Hell?”
The woman crouched down before John, taking his chin in her hands and making him look her in the eyes.
“You are a good general. You are an able administrator. But against what is coming, you will need to be so much more. There is no other man to lead England: Arthur of Brittany is too young, William Marshall will never take a crown, all others too low to raise up without protest from every side. You must become a far greater man than you currently are.”
“And how do I become as such,” John asked in barely more than a whisper, “when all the men around me scream that I cannot possibly do so? I am surrounded by critics and hecklers, who denounce my every step, refusing to hear from me even the smallest orders! I cannot lead such men!”
“Yes, you can,” the woman spoke, sighing. “It will not be easy, by any means, but it is possible. If you wish to disperse those that say you are unworthy, than do nothing that would vindicate them.”
“How can I, when they find flaw in all I do?!” John wailed. “Everything I do is wrong in their eyes! I cannot take the smallest step without being belittled!”
“Watch the steps you take, John of England, and you might see that their cries are more correct than you think. You cannot control the flaws of others: you must learn to control your own instead of foisting blame. Only then will you be the King that you think you already are.”
The woman turned away, looking towards the southeast at something beyond the horizon, frowning. When she spoke again, her voice was soft, tinged with worry.
“We need you, John. England must have a true King if it is to survive the coming storm. Resume the mission that you have planned. Go to Wales, then Ireland, heeding what I have told you. Continue to Rome for the council. Upon your return to England, come once more to this place. At that time we will speak again.”
She turned back towards John, a dark look on her face.
“If you wish to prove that the critics are wrong about you...you must begin now.”
And then she was gone. So was her tapestry, and indeed the entire hillside. Instead, John found himself once more within his bedchamber in Glastonbury Abbey. He bolted up from his bed, a cold sweat upon him. He reached up to mop his brow, his body shuddering. It took a moment for him to realize that there was a small cloth in his hands, that had been there since he had awoken.
It was the piece of the woman’s tapestry that showed his corpse, abused and spat-on by many men. John stared intensely at the shard, looking over his broken form. The cloth had become still now, the images no longer moving. He shifted his gaze to the men that surrounded him, who kicked at his body, jeering and cursing at it. They who despised him, and wished for him misery and a painful death. Those who decried every action he took, who called him out on every occasion that they could, who…
Who, for the first time in a very long time, John wondered if they might be right. While the woman had, quite frankly, terrified him, she had spoken true when she said that her tapestry showed had no embellishments. John remembered Ireland and his mockery of the natives, his usurping of the nation while Richard had been away, his anger and rage dominating even his youth. All the accusation that were levelled against him, all the charges made against his character…Were they true?
Normally, John would dismiss this line of thinking out of hand, but the meeting with the woman had shaken him to his core. The power that had seemed to radiate off of her could not have come from the Earth, only from above or below. And from either place, her vantage point on his life would have been far better than his own. Bowing to the wisdom of others was not a skill that John usually employed, but in this case…
In this case, what? Shouted one part of his mind. Listen to a woman who might well have been a witch? No, said another, listen to one who was clearly of the divine. This line of thinking continued, neither side of the argument truly gaining ground on the other. The debate raged on and on in the thoughts of King John of England. Whatever the case, the meeting with they mysterious woman had planted a seed within his mind, one which had firmly taken root.
But was he to treat it as a crop or a weed?
Mount Athos, Greece
This was Holy ground. The name of the peninsula and the mountain that sat astride it came from the pagans, named for the Giant that they said Poseidon had buried beneath it after the Gigantomachia, but in these days it was the Cross that stood above this land. The local legends claimed that the Virgin Mother had been going to Cyprus to visit with Lazarus when a storm had blown her ship off course and forced it to anchor near the port of Klement. It is said that Mary had gone ashore and, amazed by the beauty of the mountain, had blessed the land and asked that her Son make it into her garden. The tales say that a voice had answered her from heaven, saying:
"Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a haven of salvation for those seeking to be saved.”
From that moment, the Mountain was a consecrated place to all those of the Orthodox Faith, the Garden of the Mother of God. Ever since, hundreds upon hundreds of monks and hermits had taken up residence here, seeking harmony with the Lord. It was a place without distraction from the outside world: In 885, the Byzantine Emperor Basil I declared Athos to be a place for monks and monks alone, where no farmers or cattle-breeders could dwell. Monastics came from as far as Egypt and the Rus to live here, seeking God.
Naturally, monasteries dotted the mountain, with names such as Xylorgou, St. Pantelimon, Xeropotamou, Vatopedi, Konstamonitou. The newest among them was Hilandar, built on the ruins of ancient and abandoned Helandaris Monastery. The restoration had begun only two years before, but was still home to hundreds of Serbian monks, with many more expected to arrive in the coming years. The central church, that of the Entry of the Lady Theotokos into the Temple, was already complete, along with two towers and most of the monastic chambers.
Among those that lived there was the new Monastery’s founder, a certain Sava of Serbia, who had been granted the land for the Monastery and been given its Charter by Emperor Alexios III Angelos. Once, Sava had been royalty: he had been born as Prince Rastko of Serbia, youngest son of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja. For a time, he had served as the Governor of Hum under his father, quickly gaining a reputation for being charitable, kind and fair. The signs of his truling were quick to appear: He took to Asceticism at a young age, and he showed no interest in the accumulation of wealth, no love for the pursuit of fame and, indeed, no desire whatsoever for the throne of Serbia. Before two years had passed as Governor, he renounced his titles journeyed to Mount Athos to enter the monastic life.
Receiving the name Sava, the former Prince had found his life’s vocation. In no other task had he ever found so much fulfillment as he did in his studies, first at St. Pantelimon and later Vatopedi, and in no other place had he found such peace as he did meditating in his chambers. His father tried to persuade him to return to Serbia, but Sava would not be swayed, instead suggesting that his father, by then having passed his 80th year and having tired of ruling, abdicate the throne and join him in true Christian life.
On March 25, 1196, the aging Grand Prince took his son’s advice, passing the throne to his middle son Stefan at an assembly at Studenica, taking monastic vows the very next day (along with his wife, Ana). The elder Stefan remained at the monastery at Studenica for a year, being given the name Simeon, before joining Sava at Mount Athos in the autumn of 1197 , where he would be welcomed with open arms (Ana, granted the name Anastasia, retired to a different monastery, at Kursumlija).
Since then, father and son had worked together to return Hilandar to its previous glory, working with their hands and primitive tools to rebuild the walls and roofs and floors of the crumbling structures. Funding and help were easy to come by, at least: the younger Stefan, now Grand Prince of Serbia, was quick to offer money whenever he was asked, and a steady flow of new monks from Serbia flowed almost constantly, eager to follow the examples set by their former lieges.
Still, it was long and often grueling work, perhaps more fitting for paupers and peasants than for former royalty. Yet neither Sava nor Simeon made the slightest complaint, and in fact had rarely felt more fulfilled and joyful in their lives. Perhaps it was the Lord lightening their hearts for doing His work; perhaps it was the peace of mind that came from no longer having to deal with the machinations of nobles and lords; perhaps it was simple satisfaction at working, building, with their own hands, knowing that this was a thing done by themselves and not by their servants. Whatever the case, the both former Grand Prince of Serbia and former Governor of Hum could be said to be totally at peace, and their lives were all the better for it.
Alas, their tranquility could not last forever. Simeon was, after all, nearing his 90th year, a fact that could not be disguised by any measure of good cheer and physical exercise. For close to a year, Sava had watched his father’s health slowly begin to deteriorate; the elder man, it seemed, had only held on so long by seeking peace both within himself and with God, and having found both with his son at Mount Athos he was ready for the Father to take him home.
That day had drawn closer and closer through the winter, and even as spring slowly began to approach Simeon knew that his earthly time had been coming to an end. He had wished to go to Constantinople for his last days, to lie before the Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria in his final hours, but it was not to be: a sudden storm had come up at the end of January, preventing him from leaving Mount Athos. If the once-Grand Prince had been dismayed by this development, he did well to hide it, smiling even as his son and monastic brothers fretted and worried about him dying in the incompleteness of Hilandar
In the end, it was decided that he would be taken instead to nearby Koutloumousiou Monastery, to expire before what was said to be the largest Relic of the True Cross. And so it was that the monk Simeon, once Grand Prince Stefan of Serbia, founder of the Nemanja Dynasty, would enter into heaven, with his son Sava, the former Prince Rastko, by his side and all those he had joined in the monastic life praying for his soul.
The hour was drawing near. The silence in the Monastery Chapel took on a weight of its own, and now it pushed the hearts and spirits of the gathered monks down beneath it. Simeon would not have wanted them to weep for him, not as he entered into the presence of the Father, but how could they not? The old man was beloved by all, endearing himself to many within the community even in the short few years that he had been with them. His life would be remembered fondly in time; for now, they mourned in silence as their brother drew his final few breaths.
“Rastko...Rastko...Rastko, my son…” rasped the founder of the Nemanja Dynasty, his eyes cloudy and unfocused. He had been laid down before the Relic, and until now he had lied still excepting for the shudders of cold that occasionally ran through his body. Sava looked up at the mention of his name, and saw his father beginning to sit up, his face contorting in obvious pain as he did so. In a second, the younger man was by Simeon’s side, trying to get him to lie back down.
“Rastko...Rastko…” Sava looked into his father’s eyes, but saw only empty orbs. Taking a deep breath, moisture pricking at his eyes, he responded, gently trying to lower his father.
“I am here, father. ” he said slowly, not sure the older man had heard him.
Simeon shook his head, grabbing Sava’s shoulder with strength that the younger man didn’t expect. He fixed his empty eyes upon him, and Sava thought that perhaps, just perhaps, he saw the faintest trace of a spark within them. The older man spoke again, now rasping for breath.
“Rastko...listen...to me. You must...hear me. You must…” Simeon broke off into a hacking fit, his whole body shuddering. He pitched forwards towards the ground, falling into Sava’s shoulder. The younger man caught him, gently lowering him back towards the ground.
“Father, please. You must be still, if not for your sake then for mine.”
“No...no…” the one-time Grand Prince, the founder of a nation, sounded utterly pitiful, and his son felt the tears begin to fall. The old man groaned again, his eyes still dim: “No...Rastko...I must tell…”
Another coughing fit. Simeon’s breath became sharp and short, his eyes going wide. Again they looked at his son, and again Sava wasn’t sure if they saw him.
“I must…” a horrible hacking noise escaped Sava’s father before he resumed. “Must...must tell you...what I have seen.” More coughing. Red droplets came from his mouth, the bloody spots clearly visible on his rapidly paling lips. “You must...know...you...mu-”
More blood. Sava clutched to his father, the tears coming freely now. “Father…please...be still, for my sake. I do not want to see you in this pain. Please.”
“How...can I be...still?” Simeon’s whole body was shuddering now, dribble falling freely from his mouth, droplets splattering everywhere as he spoke. “How...when...I have seen...what I have seen?”
“What have you seen, father?” Sava was kneeling over his father now, mentally chanting every prayer he could think of. Some of his brother had joined him by Simeon’s side and were doing the same out loud. Simeon continued to shudder, still trying to rise. Even now, he continued to speak.
“You.” Sava blinked. His father was looking straight into his eyes now, with an intensity that would have cowed a charging beast, but still he was unseeing. For a moment, his breathing calmed. “I saw you, Rastko. You, and...and your brother.”
The moment passed, and the cough returned, worse than before. Sava shook his head.
“Father...you have seen me every day for nearly two years...what do you mean by ‘you saw me?’ And...Stefan stayed behind in Serbia, to rule in your stead...”
Slowly, Simeon shook his own head, starting to mumble his words now.
“Rastko...Rastko...you must listen to me...you must hear me...do not...deny me...this…”
The old man closed his eyes and laid back, finally ceasing his struggle to rise. He continued to mumble, repeating over and over and over again… “Rastko...Rastko...Rastko...Rastko…”
The other monks looked to Sava. After a moment had passed, Sava tried to suck back his tears before leaning over the dying man.
“I am here, Father. I am here.”
“Rastko?” The words were barely a whisper now.
“Yes. It is me.” Tears cascaded down Sava’s cheeks. “I am here.”
“Good...that...that is good. I must...I must speak with you...to tell you wh-what...what I have been shown.”
“I am listening, Father.”
“Good...good, good. Listen well. I...there isn’t much time.”
Simeon was completely still now, his words coming in a whisper. His face, nay, his whole body were deathly pale, his skin cold to the touch, his eyes closed. His breath was barely there, but on it he was still speaking, his lips and tongue almost imperceptibly moving. Sava leaned in close, straining to hear the words, even as the rest of the small chapel went as silent as the grave, a fitting expression if ever there was one.
“I...I saw your...your brother...when I dreamed last. But...not in a way...that I had ever seen him before. I...saw him...and...it was like...as if he were...an angel. He was soaring...in the heavens...he had the wings...of eagles...the stars...they were guiding...his path.”
Simeon’s body began to shudder again as he struggled for breath, and tears streamed freely from the dying man’s eyes.
“But...but then...I saw the shadow...it...it gazed...with a burning eye...all it saw...aflame…”
His breathing quickened, his whole body now shivering.
“Stefan...he...the shadow...it...it closed in...all...all around him...every side...blocked the stars...and...so many...snares...demons...hiding in it. Your...brother...tried...but...but…”
Sava looked down into his father’s eyes. They were wide with terror, terror of something that only he could see, a mortifying fear that the younger man had seen only in the eyes of condemned men. But still he continued to speak.
“But...but...a man...his left hand...dead...dagger into...his back...your brother...he fell...and...was taken...taken in chains...to...to the eye…”
Simeon paused then, his shudders momentarily subsiding, leaving his son to absorb what he had just heard. Sava was unsure of what to make of it. Delirium? Premonition? He had just begun weighing the chances of both when he felt a frail hand taking his. He looked down again, and for the first time he looked back upon his father, the man who had once been a Grand Prince, not the frail and dying man that lay before him. His eyes were full of light, and he fixed upon his son a gaze that might have cowed a charging lion.
“But then...I saw you. You...you were...were ablaze...with light...surrounded...b-by...by beautiful...beautiful swans, thou-thousands...thousands of them. You went...to your brother...and...without blade...or armor...you cast aside...the demons...broke...broke his chains...you…you...placed a crown...upon his head...”
The old and feeble man returned, the one-time Grand Prince’s eyes going dim again. He lay back on his mat, his body becoming still.
“My...dream...it ended...then…” he whispered. “You...were both...st-still in...the dark, but…”
Simeon’s breath slowed for the final time. His eyes closed for the last time as well, a peaceful look descending on him.
“Pro-prom...promise...promise me...that...Stefan...will...will here my...will here my message. I...must...believe...that I have...been...shown...what...the Lord...wished...for me...to see. So...so must you...Go...go...to you brother...I know...that...you...are...meant to...meant to save him...go...I know not...what from...but you...you must...you must protect...you brother...my son…”
His words were almost inaudible now, a soft murmuring of “go...go...go…” Sava closed his eyes, blinking back tears as he clasped his father’s hands in his. His own response was a whisper.
“I will, Father.” His voice shuddered with emotion, his mouth barely able to form the words. “I swear it.”
The smallest of smiles formed on Simeon’s face. He had heard his son’s oath. But he would hear no more. At that moment, with a final shudder and a drawn-out, rasping breath, Stefan Nemanja, called Simeon, once the Grand Prince of Serbia, founder of a Dynasty, builder of a monastery, father, brother and friend, breathed his last, in the company of his monastic brothers and in the arms of his son. And at that very moment, as if to mark the occasion into the annals of history, there was a great rumbling sound that began in the distance, like that of an avalanche mixed with the thunder of a terrible storm.
It was coming from the south.
There were those that would call this place the cradle of civilization. The Greeks, to many (especially their descendents), were the first great culture, the cornerstone on which the whole western world now rested. These lands had produced Homer and Euripides and Aristophanes, the great storytellers of old, inventors of drama and comedy. These lands had yielded Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, who between them had created the bedrock of philosophy, that even the Church, ever-wary of Pagans, acknowledged the wisdom of. These lands had bred Leonidas of Sparta and Pyrrhus of Epirus and Alexander of Macedon, who had been legendary in their own times and whose glories only seemed to increase with age.
Other lands, like Egypt and Mesopotamia, might have had longer histories, but Greece’s, it was thought, carried the most weight: Greece had, after all, conquered both of the former, exporting its culture and its language in the process. It was a legacy that refused to go away: even after the Romans, the mightiest empire in history, had laid them low, it was the Greek gods that Rome adopted, the Greek customs had persisted and in the end, when the western half of the empire was overrun by barbarians from the north and a wide myriad of problems within, the eastern half, the Greek half, still survived. Even now, the old legends of Herakles and Odysseus and Achilles survived and were still told, in spite of the efforts of both Christianity and Islam to do away with legacy of the pagans, living on as plays and poems and epics. The gods of the Greeks might have been long dead, their shrines destroyed and temples converted, but the Heroes of the ancient era and all the monster that they had faced were well and alive, if only in story and song.
But there were many that thought that Greece’s time in the sun was passing, that its great legacy had been failed by those that had come after. They looked upon the slow decay of the Byzantines and saw a people desperately clinging to their past glories, unable to face the present. They saw the ascendancy of the Franks and Italians and Turks, slowly eating away at the edges of the Empire, working their way year by year, decade by decade closer to Greece itself. Greece was the Cradle of Civilization, they agreed to that, but Civilization had long since outgrown its Cradle.
Those that said so did so at their own peril. This land was older than the Cross, older than the Crescent, had been old while even Rome was still no more than a tiny village on a hill. If no one else remembered that, the land itself would. And so it was that a cold winter storm descended across the whole land, and hidden in the roaring winds and crashing thunder and thudding hail were other sounds, the roars and cries and cackles of the thousands and thousands of nightmares that this land had inspire come to life. The people had forgotten their respect for this land.
It was high time that they were reminded of it.
Further south, one could find the island that had once been home to a civilization even older than that of the Greeks. Crete had once been home to the Minoans, who had lived and thrived centuries before the mainlanders had ever dreamed up even the oldest of their stories. In fact, they served as the main inspiration for at least two of them: Plato’s Timaeus and his Critias both speak of an ancient nation, that was old even when the city-states of Greece were young, that fell out of favor of the gods and was struck down for its hubris, sinking into the sea. In truth, the Minoans were not destroyed by the wrath of the gods, but rather by volcanic eruption so large that it destroyed one small island and set most of the others in the Aegean Sea aflame, before destroying whatever was left with a combination of earthquake and tsunami.
The island never truly recovered its past glories. In these days, Crete was a backwater. It had been nearly a quarter of a millennia since the last major battle had been fought here, when Nikephoros Phokas had stormed the great fortress of Chandax, reclaiming the island from the Saracens, and had been more than a century since the short-lived revolt of Karykes. Ever since, the island had remained little more than one more theme of the Byzantine Empire.
Nominally, it was the headquarters and main base of the Byzantine Navy, but that was hardly a claim to glory when the Navy was a pale imitation of what it had once been, or even what it should have been. It had been a claim to glory once, and had remained one even in within the bounds of living memory: Under the Komnenos dynasty, the Navy had been strong, much like the rest of the Empire. The efforts of Alexios I and John II to restore Byzantium to a state worthy of the legacies of both Greece and Rome had been fruitful, undoing much of the decay that had set in during the anarchy after the fall of the Macedonian Dynasty.
But the death of Manuel I and the subsequent machinations of Andronikos I had thrown all that under the window, a popular uprising had installed the much weaker Angelos Dynasty on the throne. The Angelos quickly proved themselves to be squabbling fools, more interested in their own wellbeing than that of the state entrusted to them. The military was quickly neglected, the navy in particular losing much of its funding and forced to rely on foreign allies and/or mercenaries to carry out basic functions such as deterring pirates. It was under the ‘watch’ of Alexios III Angelos that the megas doux (Governor of the Themes of Hellas, the Peloponnese and Crete, as well as head of the Navy), a certain Michael Stryphnos, had been allowed to enrich himself at the expense of the entire fleet, stealing the funds marked for its upkeep and selling off that which had been placed in his care; some rumors said that he had even sold the very nails of the decks for his own gain.
And so it was that Crete found itself a backwater once more, a nowhere in particular overlooked by the world at large. It was the mainland that held the interest of the Byzantines and their rivals, the fronts in Anatolia and Thrace receiving the lion’s share of Imperial attention and resources (at least, whenever the machinations of the court and restlessness of the regional governors didn’t take precedence). The world spun on; Crete remained quiet and unnoticed, being quietly lumped in with Hellas and the Peloponnese for any administrative purposes, its fleets and fortresses allowed to rot away.
Chania, occupying the neck of one of the three small peninsulas that jutted out from the western side of the island, was just one of these decaying cities. Reflecting the similarity of their names, Chania was something like a smaller version of the local administrative and military center of Chandax, originally built as a fortified city designed to deter Muslim raiders from attacking the island. And like Chandax, the Angelos Dynasty had neglected its upkeep, the smaller city being even quicker to feel the effects of being ignored by those higher in the power structure. Gone were the great galleys and that had struck fear into the hearts of the Normans and the Muslims, replaced with nothing more than a small fleet of fishing ships. What was once a mighty fortress was now little more than a backwater market and fishing town, just one more like hundreds of others across the Aegean Sea. Those that lived here lived quietly, going about their business without a care for the outside world, so long as no fleet of hostile pirates appeared over the horizon.
All that was about to change.
There was very little, at first, to indicate to the people of Crete, and of Chania especially, as to how important that they had just become. The storm that descended around them was fiercer than usual, certainly, but the people of Crete knew well that the Aegean could be ferocious under the right conditions. The howling winds and roars of thunder and blinding snow and rain were more typical of December or January, sure, but for such a storm to come in mid-February wasn’t entirely unheard of. Shutters rattled, doors creaked and the people put their pillows over their heads and tried to sleep through it. This was Crete. This was Chania, Crete; nothing important happened here.
Of course, when things happen in a place where nothing ever happens, they tend to be very large things. The inhabitants of Chania rose from their slumbers that morning expecting, perhaps, some storm damage that would need to be repaired, their main concerns being with the amount of sleep that the thunder and winds had stolen from them. They put on their clothes as they did every day and cooking small, simple breakfasts, pausing only to do some small, trivial thing before stepping outside and beginning their day’s work. And at some point in the morning, they glanced northeast.
And then they did a double take. Then a triple take. And then they stared long and hard at the sight before them, their minds refusing to believe what their eyes were telling them. For if they did, then they would have to believe that the small peninsula that Chania sat at the neck of had spontaneously doubled, no, trebled its size, what was once a relatively short stub protruding out into the Aegean now stretching a good distance towards the horizon.
And that was not all. The peninsula had had very few man-made features, being dotted only by small fishing outposts and dirt pathways, with a permanent population that numbered only a few dozen at absolute best. Now, though, the people of Chania looked out and saw a great city covering up most of the peninsula, the likes of which many had never seen. It was a fortress, clearly, with tall white walls and towers emblazoned with the image of a Swan, and not a neglected Byzantine one: this place had clearly been lovingly maintained, with not even the slightest sign of crumbling walls or rotting ramparts.
And it was large. The city, whatever city it was, sprawled across the whole of the new peninsula, dominating the horizon. The city was larger than any on Crete, certainly, perhaps any in all of Greece. The entire shoreline had been turned into one gigantic harbor, putting Chania’s tiny docks to shame, and many of the city’s quays were filled with magnificent ships, larger than any galley that the Byzantine Empire had ever put to sea.
If one had a keen enough eye, they could tell that it was actually two separate cities lying adjacent to each other, a visible seam in the center where certain design elements had been changed from one to the other. Not that the people of Chania took much note of such subtleties. They reacted as the other people of Europe had to seeing entire horizons change: Mainly, they stood there in shock, wondering what power of heaven or earth could have done such a thing, unsure of what to do. Some ran, either in fear or as messengers to Chandax to try and find someone who would know what was happening. Others hid, hoping that this was all just a sleep-deprived dream yet knowing that it was very, very real.
Crete, in an instant, was a nowhere no longer.
The Fjords of Norway
A lone figure stood along the seaside, looking out over the waters. Not a man, certainly: although their appearance was mostly similar, there was a certain radiance to them, a subtle glow that no human possessed. No, they were a child not of the Earth, or indeed even of any part of Arda that was open to mortal beings; Rather, they were one born of the Land Across the Sea, that place of paradise inaccessible to all but those that could sail upon the Straight Road.
But they had left that place behind long ago, and to it now they dared not return.
Instead, they had trod the coasts of the whole world, always looking west but never allowing themselves to make the journey. Long had they wandered the shores of the sea, long beyond the living memory of all but a very few, singing a low and mournful tune. Since the fall of Beleriand of old they had stood by the sea, singing their song of sorrow, the ages passing them by. In that time, Numenor had been raised out of the waters and thrown down back into them; Sauron had deceived nearly the whole world, rallying all manner of dark things before being overthrown by the Last Alliance; the Rings of Power had been forged, the One and Three and Seven and Nine, bringing fortune or disaster to all who bore them; The realms in exile, Gondor and Arnor, had been founded, their powers waxing and waning with the times. All this had happened, and still the lone figure had walked along the shores of the sea, undisturbed, still singing their song of mourning.
Over time, the song had slowly been altered. The tune, certainly, remained one of loss and despair and grief, but as the seasons and years and ages had worn on, the words that were spoken changed. In the most distant mists of time, if the singer had had an audience, one would have heard the word Silmaril quite frequently. Over time, the word Feanor became more frequent, then Maedhros, Amrod and Amras, Celegorm, Caranthir and Curufin. These were joined later by Alqualonde, Doriath and Sirion.
In time, other terms became more frequent: Nerdanel. Dagor-nuin-Giliath, Dagor Bragollach, Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Elrond. Elros. On and on, without ceasing or even rest, the song continued, a verse sung for each word in turn before beginning once more. It was clear, even if one understood not a single word that was said, that this was a song of lamentation, crying out for what had been lost, for what could never be regained.
But today, for the first time since it had begun, for the first time in six-and-a-half millennia, the song had ceased. Today, there was only silence, as the figure on the shoreline gazed out over the western waters, frowning. A few hours before, a sudden storm had come upon them, freezing winds and crashing waves and rolling thunder mingling with their song. The figure had trudged on, ignoring the flashing lightning and blinding snow around them: they had experienced far worse in their time.
And then the storm had ended, and when the figure could see again the tune which they had sung for eons gave way to shocked silence. They turned and looked upon the lands behind them, at the steep cliffs that hemmed in the waters below. In 6,500 years, they walked along every shore of Middle-earth, without exception, growing familiar with their lays. This land was not one he recognized. In their millennia of life, the figure had seen many, many things but this...this was a new experience.
The figure thought on this, wondering what could have possibly happened. They would soon receive an answer.
“Maglor. We must speak.”
At the sound of his name, which he had not heard for several millennia, the elven prince turned to see who had spoken it. Standing before him now was a somewhat small and timid looking woman, clothed in a simple, hooded grey cloak, her face one of care and concern, and her image blurred and came into focus with each moment, as if she were here in but a dream. Despite her humble appearances, though, the woman subtly radiated power, the air around her seeming to softly sing a song of mourning and lamentation that carried as much emotion in an instant as Maglor’s song had in six millennia. Taking a deep breath, the last son of Feanor bowed low before her.
“Lady Nienna. If I may ask, what has brought you here? It must be serious indeed: I am unworthy of your presence, even as a mere projection, much less to speak to you.”
“I have been brought here by what I am always brought by,” the Vala of Mourning, Pity and Mercy responded, “I am here to bring comfort to the weary and the grieving, to soothe the pain and suffering of the world, however I may. And...I am here to bring healing to you, as well.”
The son of Feanor looked up at the Lady at those last few words, a tinge of confusion in his eyes. She looked back into his eyes with a look of pity, continuing as she did so.
“You have seen for yourself that the lays of the land have been remade, and as was happened before, when Beleriand and Numenor fell, much woe and death has been unleashed in the process. Two worlds have collided, and now the war of one is the war of both.”
The Lady of Compassion now signalled for Maglor to rise, continuing to speak as she did so.
“This whole world lies injured: I can not walk here myself without deepening the wounds, none of the Valar may. And so we must raise up Champions to fight in our steads. Manwe’s are already here; Yavanna is preparing hers. I have chosen you to be mine, if you are willing. I wish for you to act in my name, to aid in the protection of this new world.”
At those words, a look of shock took up residence on Maglor’s face. No. No, this...this must be a mistake. No, he must have heard her wrong. Champion? Be her Champion? Him who had sworn the accursed Oath of Feanor to recover his father’s Silmarils, even if they were held by the hands of friend and kin? Him who had ignored the Prophecy of the North, foretelling the doom of the attempt? Him that had aided in the massacre of fellow elf not only once, but three times? Who had stolen the last of the Silmarils, which had rejected him, burning and scarring his hands when he had merely attempted to hold them? No, no, no, he was not worthy to so much as beg for the Vala’s forgiveness, much less serve them again. Surely, the Lady had not said what she had said. No, this must be a misunderstanding, and the fallen hero of the First Age began to tell say as much.
“I am sorry, my Lady, but you must be mistaken. I ca-”
“I have made no mistake.” Nienna’s voice her tone one of compassion and mercy. “This world needs heroes in this time, Champions and Warriors the likes of which have not been seen in this age. We cannot send those that have already passed out of the lands of the living: those doors have been shut even to us. But you, Maglor...you remain east of the Sea.”
The Vala offered her hand to the elf. “And so I offer you the chance to again be the hero that you once were. I offer you the chance to redeem the legacy of your house. I will not force it upon you: your path is yours alone to walk. But I beg that you at least consider this chance, if not for your sake then at least for mine.”
“My Lady,” Maglor began, swallowing hard. “I...I cannot. What you ask of me is impossible. My line, the line of my father...the stains of our crimes cannot be washed away. The blood of the Teleri, of Doriath and the Havens…it marks me still. If the weight of only one were upon me, then...then...perhaps. But all that I have done…”
They paused for a moment then, the only sounds in the air the crashing of the waves below. Then Nienna spoke again.
“I recall what you did, as you do,” she said slowly, fixing her eyes upon the Son of Feanor. “But you recall only your failings, your greatest mistakes. I recall your greatest victories: riding hard to your father’s aid at the Battle Under the Stars, cutting through all the Balrogs of Morgoth to save him. I recall you protecting your people from the assault of Glaurung, the Father of Dragons, when he attacked your lands, guarding their retreat to Himring. I recall you defending that city during the Battle of Sudden Flame, holding it even as Morgoth continued his endless onslaught. I recall your valor during the doomed campaign of the Union of Maedhros. You did many wonderful things, Maglor.”
“AND THEN I NEGATED THEM ALL!” Maglor screamed suddenly, his voice one of pain and self-loathing and utter despair. He stood up, his eyes wild and full of tears, his arms gesturing wildly.
“FOR EVERY GREAT DEED I DID, I COMMITTED TWICE AS MUCH EVIL! THRICE I SLAUGHTERED MY OWN KIN, THRICE! AND IF THAT WAS NOT EVIL ENOUGH, THERE WERE THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE MASSACRES: THERE WAS NO REASON ANY OF THEM! NONE! NONE AT ALL! THE FIRST WAS FOR THE SAKE OF SAILING INSTEAD OF MARCHING. THE THIRD WAS TO KILL THE SURVIVORS OF THE SECOND. AND WORST OF ALL?!”
Maglor looked towards the heavens and screamed, an agonizing wail that told of a pain beyond reckoning. Nienna watched in silence, a grieving look upon her face. Maglor continued.
“I HAD EVERY CHANCE TO CHANGE! I HEARD THE DOOM OF MANDOS! I KNEW THAT THE ACTS THAT WE COMMITTED AT ALQUALONDE WERE EVIL ONES! I WATCHED ALL MY BROTHERS DIE BECAUSE OF WHAT WE WERE DOING! AND YET I DID NOT CHANGE! EVEN AFTER CENTURIES HAD PASSED, I MADE THE SAME MISTAKES TWICE MORE! AND THEN!”
At this, the Last Son of Feanor fell to his knees, panting. His whole body shuddered in grief, this mighty prince of elves shaking like a leaf. He was silent for a long time. Finally, almost silently, he spoke once more.
“And then...after everything I had done...after all the crimes I had committed...even then I still held to the Oath. After the War of Wrath, after we stood victorious over Morgoth...still, I...I killed my own kin. Me and my last living brother...all the others dead because of our crimes...we entered into the camp of the Host of the West, slew those guarding the Silmarils that had been recovered and stole them for ourselves. And rightly, they rejected us for our evils.”
Maglor held out his hands then, showing them to Nienna. They were both covered in terrible burn scars, horrible red and black marks crisscrossing the flesh. He showed them to the Vala, his voice becoming even softer.
“These scars are testaments to my failings. I am...I am sorry, my Lady. I am truly flattered by your offer, but...I cannot be your Champion. Too much evil has been done by my hands for me to ever be a hero again. You must find another...whom the Silmarils would not burn. I am sorry, but these marks can never...will never...be healed.”
Maglor closed his eyes, his breathing deep, tears flowing down his cheeks. He turned his face away from the Nienna, unable to meet her gaze. His shame burned within him, deeper and hotter than it had in centuries. How dare he even speak to her, one of the Vala, much less scream and wail? He had lost the privilege to even kneel before her by the evil deeds that he had committed.
And yet here she was. Nienna the Compassionate curled her hands around his, gently grasping the maimed flesh. Even at her touch, perhaps the softest that could ever exist, Maglor flinched, stinging pain welling up from the wounds. Delicately, as if they might shatter in her hands, the Vala lifted Maglor’s hands up before her eyes. And then, as she had done a number of times beyond all reckoning, Nienna wept.
Like falling rain were her tears, a torrent of grief and pity that entire nations in mourning could not have matched. She wept for the victims of Maglor’s crimes, who could no longer weep for themselves. She wept for the other sons of Feanor, sworn to a cursed Oath that had led them to doom, all of whom had perished before they saw fully the error of their ways. She wept for Elrond, whom Maglor had raised as his own son and now found himself faced with a peril that he could not face alone. Above all, she wept for the elf before her, blind to the good within himself that still remained, trodding dangerously close to the fate of his final brother, Maedhros, who had thrown himself into a fiery chasm in despair.
And as the Vala wept, something extraordinary happened. Her tears fell upon the burned skin of the Son of Feanor, and wherever they fell the red and black scars began to fade away. The pain they caused, a fundamental part of Maglor’s existence for all these millennia, while not vanishing, was numbed. When the Lady released his hands, he could do little more than stare at them in dumbfounded amazement: The scars were still there, but instead of twisted flesh before him were but dull markings, like old cuts that had long since healed. He looked up at Nienna, eyes full of wonder. The Vala smiled at him, her tears still falling.
“These marks may not be healed,” Nienna whispered, eyes gleaming, “but they can fade, if only you allow them to. I have heard your lament, Maglor, your endless grief and mourning. It was a beautiful song, and it broke my heart to hear it.”
Nienna drew close, lowering herself to where Maglor knelt on the ground, their eyes meeting. She sighed, shaking her head.
“But with every verse you sung, you only worsened your wounds rather than let them close. So lost in your grief did you become that you never gave yourself the chance to heal. Do not misunderstand me: to mourn as you did for your evils was not an incorrect choice. If only a few were as remorseful as you for their misdeeds, the world would be a far brighter place. But to grieve a misdeed is only the first step in correcting it. You have wept long enough, and further grieving will not heal you, or any other; even my tears cannot make your scars fade any more than they have.”
“It is not the scars on my body I weep for, my Lady,” said the son of Feanor, shaking his head. “I weep for the scars that I inflicted upon others, and for those upon my very soul.”
“Nothing can be done for the former, Maglor,” spoke Nienna, a tremor in her voice. “No matter how much I wish that it were otherwise. But as for the latter...I do not deny that your wait in the Halls of Mandos will be long. The Doorsman of the Valar will ignore none of your crimes. But nor will he ignore any of your heroism. There is still time to add to the latter. The wounds upon your soul need not be left to bleed.”
She turned the elf to face her one last time, her eyes full of pity and grief.
“Please, Maglor. Your father died in anger, your brothers in wrath or mourning. The same fate need not befall you. No, nothing you can do can save the souls of your victims, but you can still save your own. Enough souls have become trapped in Namo’s Hall by inaction. I beg that you do not join them.”
Maglor swallowed hard, the weight of his conscious still crushing down on him. He spoke his thoughts, his voice continuing to tremble. “I don’t deserve another chance, my Lady. Not after all I have done.”
“Perhaps not,” Nienna spoke, a bittersweet smile coming to her lips. “But I am willing to give you one regardless. You need only to take it. Be my Champion. Redeem yourself. Redeem your line. Be the hero you always should have been.”
Maglor shook his head, the mighty son of Feanor quivering like a child. “My Lady. I...I wouldn’t know where to start.”
At that moment, there was a sound in the waters below, a bellowing that could not have been the crashing of the waves. Elf and Vala looked down into the valley to see a dark shape, long and serpentine, breaking through the surface of the waters. Two others were besides it, black shadows beneath the waves, following the first, all three moving further inland. The elf turned his gaze towards where the creatures were headed, and when he did so his heart filled with dread: in the distance, far down the valley, was the outline of a small village.
“You can start by saving them,” Nienna said, indicating the houses in the distance. “Protect that village. Save perhaps a hundred lives. Then find another village and then save a hundred more. And then a hundred more after that, and after that, and keep going until you can’t anymore. Save as many as you can, and perhaps, one day, you will have saved more lives than you have taken. And even if you are to fail...at least you will have tried to heal your soul, instead of leaving it to rot.”
At that, the Vala’s image began to fade away into the mist and clouds, one last whisper reaching the elf’s ears:
“Mourn no longer for those that you could not save, Maglor: act to save those that you still can.”
And then the last son of Feanor was alone once more.
No. No, he was not quite alone. That was not quite the correct word. He still had the company of his grief, of course, and that of his conscious. There were the cold winds, the crashing of the waves below. There were the creatures, breaking through the surface on occasion, their cries carrying well in the clear night air. There were the cold, hard cliffs, and the stars above, and the grass and flowers that managed to survive the dearth of winter.
And there was a chance. It was a chance given to him by a Vala herself, a chance to be her Champion, a chance to be a hero once more. A chance to show that the line of Feanor was not yet ended, nor had it been wholly lost in the darkness. A chance given to a mass murderer. To a thief. To a kinslayer. A chance given to a protector of his people. To an elf that had mourned all his crimes, without ceasing, for millennia. A chance to do good.
Maglor sprinted towards the village.