‘Goblins?’ Talen asked disbelievingly
‘Not exactly, but the word will serve, I suppose. It would take most of the morning for me to describe the twenty or so varieties of inhuman creatures Azash has at his command, and you wouldn’t like the descriptions.’
‘This story is getting less believable by the minute,’ Talen noted. ‘I like the battles and all, but when you start telling me about goblins and fairies, I begin to lose interest. I’m not a child any more, after all.’
‘In time you may come to understand – and to believe,’ she said. ‘Go on with the story, Berit.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he said. ‘When the Church realized the nature of the forces that were invading Lamorkand, they summoned the Church Knights back from Rendor. They reinforced the ranks of the four orders with other knights and with common soldiers until the forces of the west were nearly as numerous as those of the Zemoch horde of Otha.’
‘Was there a battle then?’ Talen asked eagerly.
‘The greatest battle in the history of mankind,’ Berit replied. ‘The two armies met on the plains of Lamorkand near Lake Randera. The physical battle was gigantic, but the supernatural battle on that plain was even more stupendous. Waves of darkness and sheets of flame swept the field. Fire and lightning rained from the sky. Whole battalions were swallowed up by the earth or burned to ashes in sudden flame. The crash of thunder rolled perpetually from horizon to horizon, and the ground itself was torn by earthquakes and the eruption of searing liquid rock. The magic of the Zemoch priests was countered each time by the concerted magic of the Knights of the Church. For three days, the armies were locked in battle before the Zemochs were pushed back. Their retreat became more rapid, eventually turning into a rout. Otha’s horde finally broke and ran towards the safety of the border’
‘Terrific!’ Talen exclaimed excitedly. ‘And then did our army invade Zemoch?’
‘They were too exhausted,’ Berit told him. ‘They had won the battle, but not without great cost. Fully half of the Church Knights lay slain upon the battlefield, and the armies of the Elene Kings numbered their dead by the scores of thousands.’
‘They could have done something, couldn’t they?’
Berit nodded sadly. ‘They cared for their wounded and buried their dead. Then they went home.’
‘That’s all?’ Talen asked incredulously ‘This isn’t much of a story if that’s all they did, Berit.’
‘They had no choice. They’d stripped the western kingdoms of every able-bodied man to fight the war and had left the crops untended. Winter was coming, and there was no food. They managed to eke their way through that winter, but so many men had been killed or maimed in the battle that when spring came, there weren’t enough people – in the west or in Zemoch – to plant new crops. The result was famine. For a century, the only concern in all of Eosia was food. The swords and lances were put aside, and the war horses were hitched to ploughs.’
‘They never talk about that sort of thing in other stories I’ve heard.’ Talen sniffed.
‘That’s because those are only stories,’ Berit told him. ‘This really happened. Anyway,’ he went on, ‘the war and the famine which followed caused great changes. The militant orders were forced to labour in the field beside the common people, and they gradually began to distance themselves from the Church. Pardon me, your Grace,’ he said to Dolmant, ‘but at that time, the Hierocracy was too far removed from the concerns of the commons fully to understand their suffering.’
‘There’s no need to apologize, Berit,’ Dolmant replied sadly. The Church has freely admitted her blunders during that era.’
Berit nodded. ‘The Church Knights became increasingly secularized. The original intent of the Hierocracy had been that the knights should be armed monks who would live in their chapterhouses when they weren’t fighting. That concept began to fade. The dreadful casualties in their ranks made it necessary for them to seek a source for new recruits. The preceptors of the orders journeyed to Chyrellos and laid the problem before the Hierocracy in the strongest of terms. The main stumbling block to recruitment had always been the vow of celibacy. At the insistence of the preceptors, the Hierocracy relaxed that rule, and Church Knights were permitted to take wives and father children.’
‘Are you married, Sparhawk?’ Talen suddenly asked.
‘No,’ the knight replied.
‘He hasn’t found any woman silly enough to have him.’ Kalten laughed. ‘He’s not very pretty to begin with and he’s got a foul temper.’
Talen looked at Berit. ‘That’s the end of the story, then?’ he asked critically ‘A good story needs to end, you know something like, “and they all lived happily ever after.” Yours just sort of dribbles off without going anyplace’
‘History just keeps going, Talen. There aren’t any ends. The militant orders are now as much involved in political affairs as they are in the affairs of the Church, and no one can say what lies in store for them in the future.’
Dolmant sighed. ‘All too true,’ he agreed. ‘I wish it might have been otherwise, but perhaps God had His reasons for ordaining things this way.’
‘Wait a minute,’ Talen objected. This all started when you were going to tell me about Otha and Zemoch. He sort of fell out of the story away back. Why are we so worried about him now?’
‘Otha is mobilizing his armies again,’ Sparhawk told him.
‘Are we doing anything about it?’
‘We’re watching him. If he comes again, we’ll meet him the same way we did last time.’ Sparhawk looked around at the yellow grass gleaming in the bright morning sunlight. ‘If we want to get to Chyrellos before the month’s out, we’re going to have to move a little faster,’ he said, touching his spurs to Faran’s flanks.
They rode east for three days, stopping each night in wayside inns. Sparhawk concealed a certain tolerant amusement as Talen, inspired by Berit’s recounting of the age-old story, fiercely beheaded thistles with a stick as they rode along. It was midafternoon of the third day when they crested a long hill to look down upon the vast sprawl of Chyrellos, the seat of the Elene Church. The city lay within no specific kingdom, but sat instead at the place where Elenia, Arcium, Cammoria, Lamorkand, and Pelosia touched. It was by far the largest city in all of Eosia. Since it was a Church city, it was dotted with spires and domes, at certain times of the day, the air above it shimmered with the sound of bells, calling the faithful to prayer No city so large, however, could be given over entirely to churches. Commerce, almost as much as religion, dominated the society of the holy city, and the palaces of wealthy merchants vied with those of the Patriarchs of the Church for splendour and opulence The centre and focus of the city, however, was the Basilica of Chyrellos, a vast, domed cathedral of gleaming marble erected to the glory of God. The power emanating from the Basilica was enormous, and it touched the lives of all Elenes from the snowy wastes of northern Thalesia to the deserts of Rendor