For this week’s post, I thought I’d offer a glimpse of what I’ve been working on these past few months. Below is a very preliminary draft of Noonday in the North‘s first chapter. This is book three in my Absolution of the Morning Star series (book 1: Dawn of the Lightbearer, book 2: The Mourning Son). I’m about 69,000 words into the story, so about halfway. This chapter will likely change some in editing, but currently, it is just about where I want it to set the stage for the appearance of the Red Clothes, a corruption of the Caspian faith by the Followers of Eosphorus. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out books one and two!
Noonday in the North
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
-Psalms 91: 1-6
It was late October and Highwater’s twisted black locust had already dropped their buttered leaves upon the central square of Devilan’s Watch. The little piles of rustling gold shifted from this corner to that, much to the chagrin of the street sweepers eager to finish their day’s work and get into their cups. Just three days ago flurries danced in the smoky wind and it was piles of white these men chased, but yesterday, Boreas stifled his cold breath and the phoenix sun again warmed the high altitudes of Springval. True, heaven’s great eye had lost some of its vigor as the days death marched towards winter, but today, the orange-tinged light that painted the square would bite the children’s skin red as they played and frolicked in the soft fragrant leaves.
A stranger in rusty sackcloth robes and with a hood shielding much of his face walked about the bustle dodging the playing children. With most of Highwater already submitting to the inevitability of winter, this goose summer made the square even more livid with noise and movement than a typical late harvest day. The stranger went mostly unnoticed. The Great Cathedral of the Beholding and seat of the faith’s high priest dominated the square and was often a pilgrimage site for monks. Those of the cloth, no matter how dirty or foul-smelling were allowed entrance into this most exclusive neighborhood of Lucardia when all others were stopped at the gates. The lords and ladies would cover their noses and grimace in disdain as these dirty travelers passed, but even the rich and powerful kept silent or risked being called a heretic or blasphemer, a stain that even money could not wash away.
The monk’s eyes molested the items for sale as he strolled with his hands folded behind his back. He stopped at a cart laden with harvest fruit. “Excuse me, kind sir?”
The merchant looked up from his work of neatly arranging apples. “No alms, off with you bum.”
The stranger held up a sun and sword medallion that dangled from a long chain of rosary beads. “I am not destitute, just merely a servant of the lord without the need for fancy fabric and perfumed soaps.”
The merchant squinted. “My apologies, but your robes are well faded.”
“No apologizes necessary.” The monk dusted his rusty vestments. “I agree, I’ve let the costumery shade of blood dry to this dull brown, but I am from an order without a monastery and thus must make do. Tell me, isn’t an open market this late in the day an oddity of the times? Most of Lucardia’s city’s squares would be lazy and well spent by now.”
“Devilan’s Watch isn’t like most cities.”
“How so? As far as I know, common folk lament a wasted day and most finish their shopping before the first hour of daylight.” He looked at the cathedral’s clock. “Certainly, by noon’s longest hour you should be selling your half-rotted wears at discount, not setting up shop.”
“The rich and powerful aren’t common folk, are they?”
“They are flesh and blood.”
“Eh, they move at their own pace. Thus, the markets too are tardy.” The merchant picked up an apple and polished off a blemish with his apron. “The lords and ladies wake late, and by this time, have only just finished their lavish breakfasts.” He pointed to the growing crowd. “Now’s the time for the servants, with hands still pruned from washing pots, to collect what they can for the nightly feasts as their lords saunter off towards the halls of Highwater and the ladies play their games and sing their songs in the bright cheerfulness of their day rooms.”
“When do you close?”
The Merchant motioned to another cart. “Ask Griswold over there. The price of his bee’s wax is steep, but that’s of little concern to the rich. He still leaves with an empty cart every night. With all those candles, those of Devilan’s Watch can sup late. I’ve heard from the servants that most in these parts don’t turn in until the witching hour. They stay up all night eating, drinking, and…” the merchant cleared his throat. “Well, you get the idea.”
“Hmm. Quite the place of debauchery. When do they have time to pray or ask forgiveness for their sins?”
The merchant laughed, “Only the poor pray, father.”
“Sure, if you have heaven on Earth why do you need to ask God for anything more?”
“Interesting theory, though one shouldn’t presume to ask God for anything other than the salvation of their soul.” The monk looked down at the merchant’s fat gut. “Business is good, I take it?”
“Can’t complain. It’s been a bountiful harvest, or so I was told.”
“You mean to say you didn’t grow this fruit?”
“Ha!” He held up his hands. “Do these look like those of a peasant?”
“No, they do not.”
“I live on the other side of the wall in the second ring- have my whole life.”
“Then where did you come by these wares? Do you own land?”
“Land? If I did, I would be living in one of those fine manors and not slaving away in this infernal heat. No, the landlords wouldn’t be caught dead hawking turnips to their brethren, no matter how golden.”
“So, your mercantile pursuits are how you spend your days?”
“Yes, of course. I’m a man of respectable business. Yes indeed, you will not find a speck of dirt under my fingernails. If you did, do you think any of these gentle folks would dare buy from me?”
“Have you ever seen where your wares come from?”
“Good God, no. Who would want to venture out to that dismal place? We have salaried workers for all that disagreeableness. Let them catch flees, or God forbid the plague.”
“So, you’ve found a comfortable little spot in the middle as a broker.”
“This is the trade for the smart, not the industrious like the poor or the lucky like the rich.”
“So, you buy your apples from the landowners and then sell them back to the landowners.”
“Huh, yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“And I take it you mark up the price for your efforts.”
“And what would that be, 10%?”
“Ha! Try 75%.”
“Seventy-five percent to sit here in this lovely weather and polish fruit?”
“Well, I have to pay for my own servants on the other side of the wall. Someone has to prepare my dinner when I return at dusk.”
The stranger looked at the sack of coins hanging from the merchant’s belt. “So, this trade has made you rich.”
“Well, not rich compared to those who live here.” He pointed back to the wall. “But maybe over there some would call me well-off. It is all relative.”
“Yes, I’m realizing that.”
“From your garb, you seem like a man that has traveled long distances.”
“Lord Beheld, yes. There is not a place in all of Lucardia I have not been.”
“And you’ve never been to Highwater?”
“Oh, I’ve been here before. Several times, actually, but it has been many years.” The stranger inspected an apple. “The last time I was here was back before the rebellion. The markets opened at the usual time then and the air was fragrant with pungent spices and freshly baked bread as white as snow. Exotic fruits from across the empire dazzled the eye in vibrant rainbow shades. Meats culled from the game reserves like venison, pheasant, and boar were vibrant red, not oxidized or beginning to stink, and the fish had clear eyes pulled just hours before from Springval Lake. There were hams, sausages, dried fish, ripe cheese, giant eggs, and frothy milk still warm from the utter. Honey, salt, and sugar poured in abundance and flavored elaborate pastries. Libations too were sold here. Wines from the Southlands, strong ale from the West Gate, liquors from the mountain folk, and mead from the Northlands. Artisans pedaled their wares all intricately carved with this and that and painters were doing portraits in the good light. There were medicines and salves, furs and pelts, shimmering cloth, glassware, jewelry, furniture, and housewares. The wealth of Lucardia filled this square and everything was sold at ticketed prices, for to dicker here would mean that you didn’t belong. Times were good and the realm healthy.”
“Huh, now that you say it, you’re right. I remember those days, but I was just a lad.”
“I talked with a farmer then. He knew everything there was to know about the apples he sold- he had picked them himself that very morning. His name was Haiden, I believe. Do you know him?”
The merchant’s face turned red and a bead of sweat dripped down his temple.
“You suddenly look unwell, sir. Are you alright?”
“I don’t know anything about your farmer.”
“Huh, strange. Your cart looks very much like his did. Must be a coincidence.”
“Yes, all these carts look the same.”
“Perhaps. His was red too and had the same lovely yellow awning. Haiden was an honest man with a good soul. I hope nothing ill befell him.” The monk looked around the square. “Hmm, I think perhaps the squeeze of greed grew a bit too tight here, yes? It’s clear from my travels that Devilan’s Watch remains rich and the pull of its coin still attracts all that Lucardia has to offer, but as you can see, the spices are gone, replaced by those local herbs grown by crones, and the baker’s bread there is now coarse and dark.” He picked up an apple. “Gone is the cornucopia of fruit. You can shine all day, but this apple is small and worm riddled, and those pears are half-rotten.” He tossed the misshapen fruit to the pile and looked about. “Most of the meat I see is poultry and fowl.”
“There’s red flesh over there. The vendor says it’s veal.”
“Oh? Then why does it look strangely reminiscent of a dog?”
“Meat is meat. We still got sausages.”
“Which is also likely sourced from a canine.”
The merchant pointed. “Got hams.”
“They’re clearly a year or more past their prime and are white with fuzz. That milk is starting to sour, and those eggs small. Fish remains fresh and abundant, but as you’re on the shores of the largest lake in the realm, it’s expected. If the fish runs dry, it would mean certain doom.” The stranger sighed. “Don’t you miss the wine?”
“Well, there’s been floods to the south. All we’ve got is those kegs of local beer.”
“I imagine it tastes like the water left over from washing grain.”
“It does. But at least we have the mountain folk’s liquor.”
“God bless the mountain folk. The world could end and they still would be distilling their Demonmutt Spirits and Green Temptress.”
“Well, times ain’t what they used to be. But I remember me pa saying that when I grew up. The past has a tendency of being rosy.”
“This land dies, my friend, and we with it unless something is done.”
“Precisely. What is to be done?”
The stranger was awoken from his musing by the earth-shaking toll of the cathedral’s great bells as they counted the hour to noon. For the Caspian faith who dwelled in the structure, it was now the Sext hour of prayer. With Yahweh’s light at its zenith, this was the most important time in the divine office and all would be distracted. Within the church, whispers began to hiss and slither in the hope they would find their way to heaven even before the end of the twelfth toll. But, in the square, no one paid attention to the bells as greed hoarded and gluttony consumed.
“Good luck to you, fellow. I pray that there remains enough fat in the middle for you to sate your hunger. Oh, and if you should come across old Haiden, tell him an old monk remembered him fondly and that I wish him well. And, if something terrible should have happened to that old farmer, at least I know with complete surety that God will exact his punishment. Yes, a touch of pleurisy would make that one suffer for his sins.”
The merchant instantly began to cough.
“Oh dear, you sound most unwell. You may want to consider retiring early today.”
The merchant looked down at his red-speckled hand and then up to the monk.
“I do hope you remember that the Lord can be merciful, for He knows what wicked creatures we are, but His mercy is reserved only for those that repent. Now, if you will excuse me, my destiny awaits.”
The old monk looked about and nodded to several men in like garb scattered around the square. They made their way to the steps of the monstrous building, climbed, and then gathered on the parvis to face the crowd. The monk glanced at the medallion he used to garner entrance into the posh community and then tossed it aside with a cling-clang before stepping forward. He pulled back his hood to expose his scarred forehead and looked to the sun, something he had not done in an age. His kind had recused themselves from the grace of the star’s warmth until the time was right. That time was now.
Slowly, the people of the square began to notice the rusty monks and their scarred foreheads and a murmur worked its way through the crowd. Some began to point and said, “look the Followers of Eosphorus have left their shadows!” and the spectacle drew the crowd closer.
“Hear ye, hear ye! Brothers and sisters of Lucardia, lend me your ear!”
The voice amongst the silent caused a shout and a stir. The typical keepers of the peace, seeing a thing develop, left to report to the authorities for a pat on the back and an attaboy.
“I come before you today to bring you the news! But do hurry. My time is short. While Caspia’s priests huddle within their fortress behind me and selfishly pray for the salvation of their souls, I and my brothers step from the shadows to offer you the true secrets of the universe. If that is something you would want to hear, then step forward and let me pour sweet honey into your ears! Many of you have seen my brethren at night as we watched the world wither. You may have asked yourselves, ‘who are these ones with eyes open and mouths shut?’ I am here today to unveil this mystery in the bright light of this noon-day sun. I will share with all who care to listen, what we’ve learned after our long study and will not ask you for a single thing in recompense other than your time and your ear.
“Now, if you desire such treasure, step forth into the shade of this mighty house and prepare yourselves for a tale, but be quick, for our time together is short. Already those who wish to stifle my truth are on their way to snatch my gift from your ear.”
Some of the crowd waived away these words and left, but most saw a spectacle and a free show. These lambs, almost a hundred of them, shrugged and huddled to pass away the time if for nothing more than to say they heard a Follower speak from the steps of their enemy’s church as they rested in the shade.
“Yes, yes, come forward. We are all compatriots in a long struggle between heaven and earth and should know each other better. That’s it. Good. I’ve not spoken a word in almost thirty years and I’m afraid my voice has fallen weak and is ill-suited for oratory.” He cleared his throat. “Friends, I thank you for your curiosity. This bit of flesh that stands before you was once called Pallas, but Pallas the individual was put to rest a long time ago when I took the mark upon my forehead and became one of the nameless red clothes that serve the mission of the light. At that time, I was much like you, crawling about grasping for wealth and jockeying for position and perceived power. Oh, how the shimmer of gold, in particular, dazzled me. I would have done anything to earn its favor. I prayed to it, stroked it, kept it warm at my side, and… I killed for it.”
Some in the group looked about.
“Oh, yes, I confess for all to hear. I am a murderer… a sinner of the worst kind. I was filled with greed, envy, and lust. I gorged on the good foods, slept away the working hours, beat my servants, and felt that I was king of the world! But, as I look around this square, I imagine I would find more like me than not. Even those that join me on this pulpit, hell, even those pious ones behind me bruising their knees in prayer are themselves evil-doers, criminals, and miscreants. You there, be not afraid. I tell you these things to show you we are one, something we forgot long ago. We are all flawed and broken animals searching for something but not knowing what. As you move through life, don’t you feel like there is some sort of secret being kept from your eyes? That there is some trick to it all? You find yourself saying, perhaps if I do this, things will get better, or mutter under your breath that the door to plenty and fulfillment will open for me if I just work harder. But does it? Who amongst you feels like everything works against you? Go ahead, don’t be shy. Raise your hand and look around to your allies in the struggle.”
Most of the crowd raised their hand.
“I could say these things to every square in Lucardia and always look out upon a sea of hands. Do the ones behind me have the answers? Has praying with them to their God-given you anything but false hopes? Have your cries of misfortune and unfairness been answered with ‘it is the way of God, do not question’? How about the one sitting in his crystal throne up on that hill? Has he given you any answers? I come here today to tell you that the Followers of Eosphorus know the path to truth. We’ve kept this way secret since the times of Devilan, the very man whom this square honors. The great Sage King whispered this precious message into the ear of our founder and told him to keep it safe until the time was right. That time is now and I offer this thing to you so that it may spread and prosper within our shared voice.”
“What is it!” shouted a boy. Some of the crowd jumped.
“Ah, I will tell you! The church behind me worships the one that beheld, but the true path to salvation is to pray to the one who is Beholden.”
“Blasphemy!” cried an old woman and a few of the crowd began to walk away.
“I know, I know, it is not easy to hear. True, I tread upon what has become sacred, but I do so to show you that it is nothing more than manure. For most, these words will rub against everything we’ve been taught.” He pointed to Highwater. “But remember, the man in that castle has forced Caspia upon us. In Vesper’s victory of uniting the realm, we submitted to the notion that his prophet was the chosen. For you younglings there, the Caspian church is all you’ve known, but for anyone over thirty, they remember that the Faith of the Beholding worshipped in a scattering of wattle and daub churches, considered a cult by some, and crazies by others. Caspia’s words were certainly known in the forests of Brae or other backward places with weak lords, but no one would have imagined the force of will that would erect fortresses of Yahweh like the one that towers behind me. Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong. Tell me this monstrosity of stone and iron is anything more than another fortification to impose order. Ask yourselves, if their faith is just, why is it preached from battlements?”
The crowd said nothing.
“Vesper Zuilkarrme has blinded us.”
“Lèse-majesté,” cried the old woman. “He is our Emperor!”
“Have you ever asked yourself why?”
“He was chosen by Yahweh to be the Uniter!” the old woman looked around to others for support. “Am I right?”
“No, Vesper Zulikaarme is just a man. He may have painted the name unifier on his brow and proclaimed that his empire is one of light chosen by God. But I ask you, is that light like the noonday sun? When you look at it, does it scorch your eyes with the power of its grace? Or, is it like the hypnotism of a sputtering flame shining upon a hazy mirror dazzling us to numbness? Look around you. Vesper’s reflected glory already begins to fade. The last time I was in this square it was full of unimaginable bounty. Where has it all gone? This place is the heart of the empire. You are the servants and workers to the leeches of this realm, grown plump in their big houses. Remember, you are not from this place. Remember, you crawled out of mud and filth and came here looking for more. Remember, the life on the other side of the wall. If here the meat is rotten and bread coarse, what is life like for your families back in those quiet villages far far away? In a single lifetime, the grandiosity of unity and light has been tarnished and dented into this wicked distortion. Vesper, the emperor who cannot even control his own sons, or protect us from what grows dark to the south, is the one who has forced this church upon us.”
One of the other monks whispered into Pallas’ ear. He looked up to see guards beginning to gather. He nodded and continued.
“Vesper elevated the mage Caspia as the one who brought us the great weapon against the Nephilim and then entrapped Eosphorus within Ljós Leggja. This moment of apparent triumph over the earthly realm was then enshrined by the sword and sun symbol that scratches our eyes on every surface and seal, just as it does above my head now.”
The crowd looked up to the Caspian Faith’s iconology chiseled into the stone of the tympanum above the cathedral’s main portal.
“We’ve been taught to worship this emblem, to see it as a representation of power and self-worth. But that is all a lie. I do not ask any of you to cast the symbol aside. I only ask you to realize its true meaning.”
“What is it?” asked the merchant the monk just spoke with.
“It is meant to show us that we too are imprisoned like the Seraph in the sword, punished by the usurper God, Yahweh. Remember, it was not this god that was our savior, nor even the mage Caspia and his great deceit. Is it our Emperor in his castle? No. They are all deceptions, shams, and charlatans! It was Eosphorus who gave up its seat in heaven to protect us from the scourge of the Nephilim, who sacrificed its flesh and its freedom to elevate our kind to the rulers of this land. But how did humanity reward this bearer of the light? Did we build statues in its honor or lay laurels at its feet? No. We imprisoned him in steel and then worship the symbol of that imprisonment. With our newfound freedom, did we knock the usurper god from heaven when we pushed his chosen from our land? No. We took the Nephilim’s place and now bow before the warden of our great prison.”
The guards began to move forward.
“My time has run out and my message said. Some of you will leave this square none the wiser, but a few of you felt the word of truth in your heart. Go forth and spread what you’ve learned. Be the sparks that will spread its warmth to others. Rise up and be prisoners no more. My mission is done and I will soon leave you. But hark my words, there will be others. The time for change is now!”
The guards pushed through the crowd and drew their swords as they mounted the steps. The Followers did not resist their arrest and were quickly ushered away towards Highwater. It was the exact place they wanted to go.