Charlotte’s Last Dance, a short story set in the Rule of the Gods universe, is now available on Amazon.
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Prīnceps Crafræl was abruptly awoken early on the first morning of his furlough.
The fire pit in the centre of his old quarters was out. Smouldering ashes were all that remained of a blazing fire from the night before. Crafræl had entertained the thought—albeit briefly—of stirring it up and returning to sleep.
Crafræl forced himself out of bed and walked over to the window. The first thing he noticed was all the praetōrēs walking the streets. The increased patrols and harsh jackboot conduct after yet another incident in which the Rēx Regum’s swift reprisal’s had cast fear over the people.
Great watch towers and spires reached up to the skies. Atop the towers were the horn blowers and the archers. The horns came from the Jedena that roamed the western mountains. Under Rēx Regum Cor’Emal, Atlantis had become a police state. As long as there had been Bedra’s on the throne of Gerenia, the capital had never been overrun, due mostly to these towers. There had been no caste-wars between the houses in ages. In one decisive move Prīnceps Cor’Emal had killed his brother as well as the Cyr’læn Rēx mid senate conclave. He declared that he was Rēx Regum and stood over the Cyr’læn nobles and whatever Rēx they would elect to replace their deceased monarch.
Crafræl remembered the bronze statues of bygone heroes centred in every open square and plaza, they towered over a hundred feet into the open air.
There were grand marble fountains; pluming with vast sparkling sprays of multi-coloured water—courtesy of the local clergy. The Atlantean architecture was sweeping, rising more than ten stories high, and in some of the senatorial and temple quarters the buildings were even higher. Not even Euclid himself could have managed these trifle wonders—and people still wondered how the Atlanteans built the pyramids.
Lost in his sombre thoughts, he did not hear Kemptlin, his childhood governess, enter the room.
Crafræl groaned audibly; there was no way he was going to go back to bed now. He turned to regard her. She marched into the room with an authoritative air. He groaned louder, hoping this would somehow dissuade her in her duty.
Kemptlin would not be deterred in her task. By order of the Rēx Regum, Crafræl was to submit to his childhood governess during his stay in the palace. Making the Prīnceps miserable gave the Rēx Regum immeasurable pleasure. Crafræl was nineteen but felt that no one at home had taken notice of this fact.
Kemptlin was a large, flat featured, muscular woman with the temperament of a drill sergeant.
Draped over her left shoulder was a coarse black towel and in her right hand, a coral blue abrasive sponge. Kemptlin’s high-pitched voice was only emphasized by the nasal passages of her elongated and stuck up nose. She pointed with her finger, as only she could point, with silent demand that Crafræl disrobe and step into the chambers’ bathing tub.
Crafræl might have smiled but he knew better. His governess had not changed one bit in all the years since he left.
In the Legio, he understood his role and was accepted, if grudgingly. At home, he was still an unwanted inconvenience. Crafræl fervently wished to explain to his dear governess that he had in fact already bathed the previous night.
Crafræl exhaled explosively, trying to capture the fading vestiges of his recurring dream. The one of the elusive woman. A woman with exquisitely stunning eyes.
Crafræl shook his head in an attempt to clear the lingering fog of sleep that seemed to have gotten lodged behind his eyes. Sighing regretfully, he put all thoughts of the confusing dream behind, and with tremendous mental restraint, followed the directions of his governess.
“Big mistake; I should have insisted on staying at the barracks!” Crafræl growled at her.
Kemptlin grunted her inarticulate disdain at her ward’s choices.
The tub was long and deep, made from grey marble, with black trim, it almost glowed in the crystal lamp light. It was raised up on a dais so servants would have an easier reach to aid them in their jobs.
The dais and the floor were made from matching cream coloured grey streaked marble. Crafræl preferred to simmer in high heat, but the only temperature he got when Kemptlin was in charge was decidedly on the cool side. The floors of his quarters were bare except for a few throw rugs made of bear pelts.
Kemptlin grunted again and snapped her fingers. Without any further delay, Crafræl stripped and descended into the tepid water. He reminded himself yet again that there was no point in trying to tell his ageless governess that he was of sufficient age bathe himself.
“You just can’t reason with a person who is a master at playing a deaf, silent and stubborn old crone.”
Even if he tried to convince her that he was able to wash by himself, she would only continue her laborious chore. Only by the strict order of the Rēx Regum did he consent. She seemed to take a spiteful delight in scrubbing vigorously with that infernal sponge. With a grim unrelenting determination, she made him suffer from sharp tugs and pulls on his ears; then only to be dragged by the same convenient handhold into the never-ending deluge of suds and lukewarm water. Crafræl was roughly towelled off, which brought the remaining pleasurable mystery of his dream to an abrasive end.
After the agonies of Kemptlin’s speed bathing, Crafræl was shaved, trimmed and coifed. She physically forced him into the formal military family kilt, a woollen red and jet-black pattern with dull golden cross-stitching and trim. Matched with a linen jerkin and leather calf length boots, also jet-black with golden trim. Lastly, the traditional Gerenian’s poniard of the highland royalty was tucked into the right boot. Kemptlin hung and tied his matching plaid.
Then with impetus—invested by a hitherto unknown god—his dear Governess ushered her resplendent Prīnceps to the main hall. In an act of peevishness, and frustrated by her care, Crafræl deliberately ran his fingers through his short charcoal black hair.
Later at board, Crafræl eyed his twin—irritation pinched his face. Nayd smiled at his conflict-minded brother, he ate slowly, savouring each morsel he shrugged nonplussed by Crafræl.
Nayd’s hair, Crafræl noted, remained in the neat and immaculate pattern his own governess had arranged. A serving maid arrived and laid out bread and meat with fruit and cheese. She was about to ask if they needed anything more, but Crafræl dismissed her with a look. He had retrieved a bottle of Byzantine red from the kitchens and proceeded to pour, spilling large droplets over his hands.
“Ræf, relax,” Nayd said with a grin. “When do you return to duty?”
Crafræl turned his body and sat cross-ways on the bench his elbow and the board. His eyes burned but he continued to stare unblinking into space. “Two weeks, if father doesn’t find an excuse to send me back before then. I don’t understand why you’re being reassigned. We’re a little shorthanded on Tribunes and sending you halfway across the continent seems foolish.”
“I agree that the transfer is not to my liking, I am being placed as ambassador to the crown. I won’t complain about that. Fighting is more your thing than it is mine.” Nayd said, stretching expansively.
Crafræl reached out and poured himself more wine. Mulling the spicy liquid, he found it too cool. He tossed the dregs from his cup, reached over and placed the bottle next the small brazier.
“Don’t you think it’s too early?” Nayd asked. “You look like you drank enough last night for an entire platoon.”
“The hell’s you know, Nayd!”—Crafræl moaned from beneath that morning’s hangover— “You don’t have Kemptlin for a governess.”
Nayd sighed and dropped that line of questioning. “Have you been able to”—he looked around— “speak to your, friends?” he said stressing the final word.
Crafræl raised his head and watched the other people in the hall with hooded eyes. There weren’t many, but he didn’t recognize any of the senate’s usual cronies and lapdogs.
“Some, but they’re all too afraid. centuriō V’Rek and Dumil and Cobin-Gothen have pledged their legio. Prīmipīlus Coris has his ass on the fence, but I know if we rally enough supporters he’ll commit. I haven’t spoken to any of the others yet. They’re still out on campaign.”
“V’Rek and Dumil…hmm. How long do you think it will take you to reach the others?”
“I can’t make excuses to travel out where they are, without rousing suspicion or being Over the Hill. We’re not ready yet, Nayd. We don’t have the manpower to confront the king.”
“We can’t wait forever.”
“What do you suggest big brother…” Crafræl said. “Should I challenge our father to a duel? I’d be a standing pincushion for every shaft and quarrel before I finished speaking!”
“Who else have you been speaking to?” Nayd asked.
“D’rel and Cols, why?”
There was a nervous twitch in his eye, he looked haggard and worn. “I just want to know who’s on my…our side.”
Crafræl grunted his disparagement. “Have you heard anything more about the disappearances?”
“Nothing concrete. But the Dux Rectionis seems to be involved. There was a report that one of the missing people turned up wandering out near one of the king’s estate houses. His eyes were white with cataracts.”
“That happens to many people. Why is that significant?”
“The man was twenty-two. The reports stated that he smelled like spoiled meat left too long in the sun.”
“Were you able to track him down and get some details?” Crafræl asked, with a mouthful of food.
“No. He was killed by some overzealous garrison troops out during a training exercise.”
Crafræl snorted. “How convenient; we both know what that means. How was your trip to Silesia; were you able to persuade the Queen to support us? What about Illyria?”
“Yes, she agreed to provide her munifex to help us. But the Illyrians are adamant in their neutrality. Our Düm’tæn won’t help, they’re too afraid of the legiōnēs.” Nayd hesitated. “Ræf I don’t know if I should be that involved in this, I should have more distance with this plan. It’s just that… I have other priorities.”
“Oh really, Nayd?” Dark hostility overlaid Crafræl’s words. “We’ve planned this since we were boys, and now you want me to do all the work?” Crafræl said sitting up straight.
“Ræf I’m with you on this, but, uh… I have been working on something else.” Nayd said.
“You’ve been working on something else since we were young. I don’t like it.”
“There’s a good reason for that brother, trust me. But it’s personal. Please stop prying.”
“When? When will you have time? You’re a Tribune, an ambassador, you’re not father’s lackey. What’s taking so long to finish? This is because our father never beat you like he did to me, isn’t it? Or is it because he never hurt you? You’re the heir! Not the unwanted cursed child! And now you’re telling me you want distance?! If you want to sit on Father’s throne you have to stay committed!”
“Ræf don’t exaggerate. I am fully committed,” Nayd smiled without meeting his brother’s eye, but he lacked conviction.
“Exaggerate!” Crafræl was halfway out of his seat. “If you weren’t my brother—.”
“Don’t finish that sentence Ræf!” he warned. “You just need to trust in the gods.”
“What?” Crafræl rolled his eyes. “Since when do the gods have anything to do with us? You were never worried about the edicts’ before! And now you sound like a Praelatus! ‘Trust in the gods’, what’s that supposed to mean?”—Crafræl spat— “Let the gods hang!”
“I see they made you a Principālis,” Nayd said, changing the subject again. “Well, well, my brother, a Principālis! Do you have any other good news?”
Crafræl shrugged, indicating a negative. “Principālis Pek died a month ago in the Ural Mountains, so I got moved up. We lost the whole ship too; left us up to our asses in Ural savages. That little turd took the Preafectus with him, right over the rail. He was so scared he held on to him like some kind of life preserver. That sheep shagging lowlander always kept the armoury key in his scrip.
“We had a bitch of a time tearing the door off the armoury, and then we crashed. Tore the hull clear through. I lost a dozen men right then and there. Good thing I always keep my gear with me. After the crash, the ship tilted over and I flew into the wall of my quarters. I got a rivet bolt through the back of my left shoulder, right here. Thought for sure I was going to stay skewered there. Rohd and N’rel crawled through the wreckage of the ship and pulled me off just as those Ural sons of whores came pouring into our crippled ship, screaming to Odin.” Crafræl shuddered, took a long drink from his steamy mug, and closed his eyes. “The Ural are just as bloodthirsty as their Midgard cousins. I only had enough time to pull my blade and run it into the first of those savages before they swarmed the ship. The floor was at an upwards angle and slippery as a Silesian sausage. I don’t know how I kept my feet.
“They never stopped coming, wave after wave. It was man for man, for man, for man; three against one”—Crafræl rubbed at his temples trying to banish the unpleasant memories— “the Ural don’t believe in retreat; they think that dying in glorious battle dispatches them to their vaunted Valhalla. Unfortunately, the Praelatus survived, he hid under his bunk kissing his own ass, the cowardly dress wearing sod—”
“—Ræf don’t talk about praelātī like that,” Nayd said reprovingly. There was a strange insistence to his voice.
“I’ll talk about those phallus’ impaired pederasts anyway I want,” Crafræl said. He took a deep breath and stabbed his fork into the meat. “I’m sick of the chicanery!” Crafræl declared. His leaned against the wall, arms folded, head down, and smouldering eyes up. “We’ve been cowed by that maniac.” He meant the king. “Do this, do that, without even a whimper. What about us huh? Are we just sheep!”—Crafræl said, as his fist struck the board— “No, not even his own sons are given a thought.”
“Ræf, calm down—” Nayd snapped.
“By the gods, Nayd, Enough!” Crafræl stood, disrupting the board and overturning the fruit bowl. Heads turned and conversations ceased.
“Why do I continue to put up with him?” Crafræl demanded drawing out each word, hoarsely. “Are we cowards? Give me the word brother, and I’ll end him.”
“Ræf, no!”—Nayd jumped to his feet— “We’re not alone!” He hissed.
“What? Are you turning tail like our chicken brother?”
“Keep it down Ræf,” he said motioning with his hands. “If they hear y—”
“God’s above, Nayd. Take your politicians’ speech and cram it between your creases.” Crafræl said, jabbing a finger at his brother. He turned and punched the wall, cracking his knuckles and breaking the skin.
Nayd lowered his voice to barely more than a whisper. “Keep it down. We can’t talk about him, you know that. Father had B’cræl flogged and exiled. They threw him off the edge of Atlantis to drown! Don’t talk about it here; they’ll report you.”
Crafræl slowly turned and faced Nayd, his eyes searching. “He was not afraid to confront Father; he was the brave one,” Crafræl whispered.
“So, practicing your Latin are we?” Nayd teased, changing the subject.
“Bugger off Nayd.”
Crafræl refreshed himself in the small fountain near them. Nayd tensed, pale eyes scanning the room. Crafræl stared inquiringly at his brother, then looked around the room. He spied several off-duty praetōrēs entering the hall.
“What?” Crafræl said facing his brother. “I don’t care what they think.”
Crafræl walked around the table. “Hey you, you no-good layabouts, on another treasury paid-for break?” Crafræl didn’t care what trouble he started, his words got the praetōrēs’ collective Neanderthal attention.
“Ræf, don’t—.” Nayd cautioned.
“Stay out of this, or join me, Tribune.”
Crafræl advanced on the approaching group. There were six of them, this would be easy pickings.
“Are you talking to us, little boy?” said the leader.
“Mind your betters’ munifex-boy,” her ugly friend added.
“Why don’t you drop dead or go stick you head in a latrine?” Crafræl re-joined, imitating Prin, his mother’s young maid. “Me and the Tribune, can smell your stench from here,” Crafræl declared, as Nayd stepped up next to him.
“What was that, boy?” the first praetōriānus asked again, clearly not recognising the prīnceps.
“If you insist on speaking to me, latrine breath, you should, at least, address me by my proper rank. Here let me spell it out for you grade school drop outs. That’s Prin-cip-ali, munifex -boy,” Crafræl said as he turned his shoulder stripes to them.
The foremost of the bunch, a tall narrow-shouldered woman, levelled a hay-maker at Crafræl’s smiling face. It was so predictable that he should have seen it coming. Instead, Crafræl saw stars behind closed eyelids, and with that, they swarmed him.
Crafræl brought up one knee to the groin of the praetōr that had hit him. As she doubled over, Crafræl planted his elbow square on the bridge of her nose, flattening it against her cheek with an audible crack and a spurt of blood.
Nayd spun away from them, twisted, tucked in his gut and thrust out his ass, narrowly avoiding each of the blows from the others. He ended the circuit and proceeded to give the second pompous praetōr a sound drubbing.
Crafræl knew he would catch flak from his bodyguard for this but it was too much fun to pass up.
After they finished mopping the floor with the Rēx Regum’s elite thugs, the brothers stood to one side to catch their breath. Crafræl met the eyes of the other people in the dining hall. There were looks of fear, shock and astonishment, but all of them met his gaze with looks of grim approval.
Nayd panned the room with his pale brown eyes for a moment more; then shrugged uncomfortably. “Let’s get out of here,” he said taking his brothers by the shoulder.
“Yes let’s go,” Crafræl answered with a smile.
They left the praetōrēs to pick themselves up and without a backwards glance, exited the hall. Crafræl watched his brother out of the corner of his eye, and then cracked a grin just as they left.
“So,” Crafræl asked conversationally as if nothing untoward had just happened. “Tell me how your last trip with the Silesian Queen, went?” He said raising his voice loud enough to carry. He pulled a rag from his scrip and dabbed at his bloody knuckles.
“Nerve-wracking” Nayd admitted.
“Nervous, you? What do you have to worry about mister Tribune? Are you so ghost-shy of royalty that you need me to perform your ambassadorial duties too?” Crafræl chided him mischievously.
“Do you mind? Tribune is my rank and already you want to get in on it too? You’ve been Principālis, for what, a few weeks. Shame on you”—Nayd cried in mock despair throwing up his hands— “how many titles can you hold on those herculean shoulders of yours?”
“As many as I can get. I hear that her Majesty’s quite a handsome lady, striking in fact. You used to be oh so articulate with the ladies when we were younger,” Crafræl said his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Remember how you used to stutter every time Bel spoke to you; how you used to stare at her bodice with owl eyes!”
“Ouch… Ræf that’s a little low. My boyhood infatuation with Bel was just that. You used to be smitten with her too.”
“Who wouldn’t. Do you remember the size of her”—Crafræl whistled, he cupped his hands in front of his chest— “Ya, I thought you would. Alright. No more comments I promise, Mr. Charming….”
“Enough already, I don’t want to be late for my meeting. What are you up to?”
“I’m going to check in on an old friend.”
The brothers parted ways and each walked off in opposite directions.
Not long afterward, Crafræl turned down a familiar corridor. In the hall, there was a vaguely familiar guard. The guard could have been chiselled from stone for all the acknowledgment he gave the Prīnceps. The maid Prin also stood to one side; bashful and wide-eyed, she greeted Crafræl.
Strange, what is she doing here? Crafræl thought.
Crafræl opened the door to the scriptorium. The room was empty save for two people. He was surprised to find his mother there, sitting on the edge of Kebin’s desk. The two whispered in an animated dialogue.
If he was surprised, she was doubly so. Her fine wheat-gold tresses, eyes so pale you could hardly discern their cerulean tint. She appeared discomfited as if she had been caught at something.
“You two know each other?” Crafræl asked, with raised eyebrows.
Brin stood and smoothed out the front of her dress and pulled at her neck line.
“Yes. We’ve know each other for many years. Master Kebin brings me books”—She made a hasty grab at a book on the desk— “I do love to read,” She said, clutching the volume to her bosom. Brin made a hasty retreat to the door and gave her son a peck on the cheek.
“How long will you be home?” She asked.
“A couple of days,” he replied.
“That’s great. I will be in today’s games. Do you have the time to come and see me?”
“I will happily make time. I am surprised father lets you participate. Isn’t it unseemly for the queen-concubine to be naked in public?”
“Pshaw. Everyone else participates naked, why should it be different for me? I think Cor’Emal wants to show me off? Stop by my rooms later for dinner, we’ll play a game of Kings and Queens.”
She was gone before he could reply.
Crafræl’s oldest friend sat at the desk, feathered pen in hand. The Master Scribe was staring at the Prīnceps, hand poised in mid-air. He placed his pen into an inkpot at his elbow and removed the glasses that were resting on his nose.
“There you are my boy!” He stood and scooted around the table. The two embraced each other.
“Hello, Uncle Kebin,” Crafræl said. He was not, in fact, related to the scribe, but it was how the Prīnceps felt about his old friend.
The smile on the man’s face was like an autumn sunset, warm and fatherly.
“Please sit,” Kebin said. Crafræl flopped into the comfortable chair.
“What’s the last book you read?” Kebin asked with a grin.
Crafræl took the bait. “The Principals of Proper Etiquette’.”
Kebin made a sound of disgust and shook his head. “That’s the book you were looking for the day I met you. The day you barged into this room. You were hiding from that gods awful Kakmit; the guard. I still can’t believe that they’re teaching from that book. I have never known anything good to be in it. Now tell me the truth, what was the last book you read.”
“An ancient old tome, De Re Militari.”
“Now that is positively ancient. I’m surprised you found a copy,” Kebin leaned forward in his chair.
Without answering the unspoken question, Crafræl produced the book and handed it over to Kebin’s eager hands. The Scribe took the book reverently in his hands. He applied a meticulous eye to the binding, the papyrus edges and even smelled the ink on the pages.
“This is a noteworthy reproduction. 3523?” Kebin questioned, with upraised eyebrows.
“’29 in fact. I bribed a Byzantine book dealer I met in Gaul.”
“Excellent. May I?” Kebin asked, indicating the book.
“Yes, I’ve finished it.”
“How is Rohd? And the other one, the blond boy with the missing tooth what’s his name?”
“N’rel,” Crafræl offered, “he has all his teeth now.”
“Yes, that boy.”
“Both of them are well. Did you hear about my promotion?”
“And your transfer. Tell me about Lēgātus Devic.”
“I have no respect for the man. He is a complete, unmitigated ass and in no way a competent leader. I believe we will work well together.”
Kebin chuckled at the mind of his young friend. “I’m glad to hear you are well and prospering. I get reports, but hearing it from you makes it real.” Kebin smiled. “You need to write more,” Kebin chided gently.
Crafræl looked around the room. “Where’s the picture of your wife? Did it get damaged?” Crafræl asked.
“No, no. I moved it into a scrapbook along with the rest of my family pictures. They passed on years ago. I don’t need them on my desk anymore. Her memory is with me.”
“Then she will never be completely gone. How’s my mother?”
“She is well.”
“I never knew that you were friends.”
“Yes. We’ve known each other for many years. She enjoys reading. And I am ostensibly the librarian. I find books for her.”
“Right. All that last century poetry”—Crafræl mimed gagging and winked at Kebin— “I’m glad she has a friend in you. How is Beltane? She still works for you?”
“She is well. And yes she still guards the scriptorium. We have luncheon once or twice a week. Is Rohd with you?”
“Good. Prin is eager to see her and N’rel again.”
“N’rel should get around to marrying that girl one of these years. Before she loses interest.”
“I doubt that will happen. She set her cap for him before you left for the Akadamy.” Kebin said.
Crafræl smoothed the fatigue off his face with a hand and stood. “I need to be going. Is there anything I can get for you while I’m home?”
“Not that I can think of. But if you see that book dealer again maybe you could check if he has any of these.” Kebin scribbled a note and handed it to the Prīnceps. “What are you up to tomorrow?”
“I’m going to see a young friend of mine out in the country near Elam Værtis.”
“Would you be interested luncheon, today?” Kebin asked.
“Let’s go to the market and grab some food,” Crafræl suggested.
“That sounds like a great idea.”
“Will you be going to the games?” Crafræl asked with a sly look.
Kebin coughed uncomfortably and blushed. Crafræl laughed and squeezed his friend’s shoulder.
The two old friends walked out together.
Atlantis, 8th Maius 3451 Ab Urbe Condita
Right from his first awful infantile breath of life, it was not possible for Prīnceps Crafræl to mourn his loss of hearth and home. His first faded impressions and later memories were poisoned with pain, dread and betrayal. At eight years of age the long, dark, private hell that was Crafræl’s childhood, was irrevocably over.
Crafræl enrolled in the Akadamy with his brother Nayd, and their three cousins: Olàn and the brothers Het and H’Tor. Even at age eight, Het towered over his brother, he was nearly as tall as a grown man. H’Tor was thin and lean. Silent Olàn was short and reedy.
A half-breed, N’rel, was also enrolled with the cousins as an Auxilia. N’rel was a half-caste, and no single descriptor labelled him. His father was Gerenian and his mother Düm’tæn—a forbidden union. But N’rel’s father was a man highly regarded and influential; he arranged a certificate of legitimate birth for his son, despite the law. Crafræl took a liking to the comically minded N’rel, who quickly attached himself to the Prīnceps, in hopes of proving himself worthy.
On their arrival at the Akadamy, the cousins were whispering to each other as they walked through the great wrought iron gates.
A male officer stepped away from his compatriots, and marched towards them, interposing himself before the group.
“Who gave you permission to talk?” the man asked.
The Prīnceps knew he wasn’t expecting an answer.
Crafræl and his cousins, along with the rest of the boys enrolling in the Akadamy turned silently and headed towards the barracks.
“Where do you think you’re going? Drop your bags.” The same man spoke, this time to the whole body of boys.
“Drop them now!” he ordered.
The children hastily complied.
“Jump,” he instructed.
Nobody moved; the boys looked at each other uncertainly.
The man pointed at himself. “I am Optiō Minor Vedec, when I tell you to jump, you jump. If you don’t jump high enough, I’ll break one of your arms. If you refuse to jump, I’ll do more than break an arm.
“Jump!” he instructed again.
The children jumped. Crafræl and his cousins jumped as high as they could. A Dum’tæn girl barely managed a hop. One of the other optiōnēs minors that were standing on the outskirts of the crowd immediately descend on the hapless child and shattered her arm with a cudgel.
The girl cried out in pain and began to cry. The optiō minor, in the act of walking away, spun back around and bludgeoned the whimpering child into insensibility.
“There is no pain for a munifex! You are warriors, not babies!” she said before walking away.
Vedec clasped his hands behind his back and walked in front of the tīrōnēs, speaking to them, but he did not look up.
“You are tīrōnēs, new trainees. But you are turd nuggets, and giving you that title is more than you deserve. Over there, is the Gauntlet. Every day you will run the Gauntlet. Don’t test us and refuse. Now run!” Vedec bellowed.
“I refuse,” said one of the boys, clearly testing the optiō minor, “my father is Cōnscrīptus Bailůn. And you can’t order me to do anything.”
Vedec’s expression shone with malice, and without changing expressing he yanked his cudgel free, and beat the boy to death. After he had wiped the gore off on the dead boy’s clothing, he stepped over the body and looked into the eyes of the startled children.
“The Akadamy doesn’t care which caste you come from, or which house you belong too, or who your daddy is. The rest of you self-entitled Cyr’læns will learn your place. You will run the gauntlet twice today.”
As if to demonstrate the seriousness of Vedec’s declaration, the other optiō hands suddenly bristled with an assortment of cudgels, whips and goads.
Of the new Cyr’lean tīrōnēs, eight died from exhaustion and another was beaten to death by the instructors for failing to complete the second run of the obstacle course.
The next morning Crafræl and his cousins were confronted by the local truant officers. This self-appointed welcome committee consisted of the biggest—and dumbest—of the sixth year tīrōnēs.
Crafræl stood before the latrine pit voiding his bladder; without warning he was grabbed from behind.
“Hey guys, look who’s in the latrine,” their leader said, “it’s the Prīnceps.” She had the ugliest face Crafræl had ever seen.
With malicious glee, the truant officers singled out Crafræl and his family, pinning them against the walls. The other tīrōnēs vanished with the alacrity of gazelles.
The leader poked and pinched Crafræl’s exposed sex. “This isn’t a pecker,” she declared, squeezing his genitals mercilessly, “it’s a peanut.” Crafræl bit down on his lips to stop himself from crying out.
Crafræl and his squad were pulled to the ground—even giant Het—and thoroughly trounced. With split lips and blackened eyes, as well as numerous abrasions, contusions, and bloody noses, they were initiated into the pecking order, as Akadamy freshmen.
This gang of thugs would continue to be a thorn in their collective sides for the next ten years. Out of necessity, H’Tor, Het, Olàn, N’rel and Crafræl formed their own five-man squad. They were simply referred to as “The Squad” because the Truant Officers decided that they did not deserve a name. The other squads made it clear The Squad were not welcome to join them. Being associated with the Rēx Regum’s disfavoured second son marked the cousins as outcasts. Nayd was separated from them the second day. He was the heir, and was placed with the Cyr’læns for officer training. Though Crafræl did manage to make a number of friends and allies among the other Gerenian tīrōnēs, it was too dangerous for them to include Crafræl in their ranks.
Crafræl lay in the dirt after his initiation, blood pooling beneath him. His mind drifted to the day he left for the Akadamy, and not for the last time he seriously considered running away.
The royal family was breaking their fast together in the dining hall, with a number of senators and the Cyr’lean Rēx. The Praefectus of the Düm’tæn quarter stood before the Rēx Regum, trembling as his lord ate.
“Your majesty, it was wrong of you to make the poor carry the burden of the tax. Especially the Düm’tæn, we are the poorest caste, though we are not Kath. Please reconsider the tax increase, Majesty.”
Cor’Emal did not look up from his meal, but instead continued to cut his meat into bite sized portions. “You will increase the tax as I ordered”— Cor’Emal said as he carefully placed a piece of venison on his fork, dipped it in the gravy and ate it. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, considering— “but instead of three percent it will be five. If your people cannot match the difference, then you will pay the difference from your own coffers.”
“No,” Praefectus Lo’dec objected.
Crafræl cringed visibly. He kept his face down while he looked up. He anticipated the worst. His brother Nayd, ate with relish, unconcerned as to what was about to happen.
Cor’Emal Rēx Regum was tall even for a Gerenian, broad in the shoulder, heavily muscled and covered in lurid scars. He had sky coloured eyes and dark hair. His nose was broken. Cor’Emal’s smooth cultured baritone voice belied the violence of his appearance. Ever present or so it seemed, at the Rēx Regum’s elbow, sat the Grand Vizier with his gaudy robes and steely flint-eyed gaze. Crafræl’s mother, Brin, despised the man, so Crafræl despised him as well.
The Praefectus had offended the Rēx Regum, and he knew it.
The Grand Vizier leaned in and whispered into the Rēx Regum’s ear. Cor’Emal paused between bites and lifted his gaze to look the Praefectus square in the eye. “praetōriānī, restrain the Praefectus,” he said never changing his tone or expression.
Before Lo’dec could utter a word, the praetōriānī surrounded him, and held him in place.
“Cut off his head and limbs,” Cor’Emal said turning back to his meal.
“No, spare me,” the Praefectus pleaded.
Crafræl knew his cold and calculating father never went back on his word.
Blood sprayed the table spattering over Cor’Emal’s plate, and into his drinking cup. Crafræl looked down at his arm and stared at the crimson droplets on his sleeve and hand. He managed to hold down his breakfast by sheer will and fear of his father’s reprisal. Nayd continued to eat with only the merest of acknowledgements to the death of the Praefectus.
“Praetōriānī, place the pieces on display at the entrance to the Düm’tæn quarter. Make an example of the Düm’tæn,” The Rēx Regum said, taking a drink from his cup.
The ceremony of departure took place at the dry-docks, while the airships made final preparations for departure. The Rēx Regum spoke at length, smiling with pride at Prīnceps Nayd; he barely acknowledged Crafræl. Nayd ignored his twin and would not make eye contact either. The Grand Vizier whispered to one of the Senator’s that stood nearest to him, giving Crafræl a look of repugnance.
“We expect great things from you High Prīnceps. I know you will distinguish yourself and bring honour to the throne. You, my heir will surely surpass your… peers”— Cor’Emal glanced meaningfully at Crafræl, before turning back to Nayd— “never forgot the noble blood that runs through your veins.”
Nayd lapped up the sycophantic attention of fawning courtiers and senators as they praised him with flowery speeches. He was like a pampered cat with a bowl of fresh cream.
No one said anything to Crafræl.
The Prīnceps mother was also in attendance but she shared few words, even still, her face glowed with the pride she felt for her sons.
“Go forth, sons of Atlantis,” Brin declared, “be bold and strong! Honour the gods!” She rested her hands on the shoulders of her boys, leaned in ostensibly to offer a chaste kiss on their cheeks, and whispered, “Be sure to write.”
At the close of the ceremony, the Rēx Regum assigned bodyguards for his sons. For the favoured Nayd, a former decorated Gerenian Tribune. For Crafræl, because his father deemed him unworthy of a peer, a Bomat named Rohd. The tribune was retired, and Rohd had just graduated the Akadamy the year before. Crafræl was relieved when the speech was over and the Rēx Regum sent them on their way.
The brothers dropped their things in their shared cabin and then quickly went up on deck, watching Atlantis shrink away from them. They stood solemnly at the rail of the airship as it sailed out of the dry docks.
The only thing Prīnceps Crafræl took with him the day he left home was fury. He held it soothingly to his breast, gently stoking its bright embers. He was a child, with a child’s strength, and could not fight the horror and injustices he’d witnessed. Any fondness or patriotic affinity Crafræl may have had of his home, would be forever stained, as stained as his eyes. He could not erase the memory of greasy black pillars of smoke reaching to the heavens as homes were torched; or the smell of the bodies that burned inside those homes. The Rēx Regum’s example was to have his most fanatic legio, made up entirely of utterly loyal Revian assassins, the infamous legio persōnātus, systematically rape and butcher the Düm’tæn men, women and children, before sealing the quarter, and putting it to the torch.
As the flames rose, Crafræl stood next to his brother, seething, his fists clenching and unclenching. Nayd finally deigned to address his brother. “Yes Crafræl, I will make things different when you make me Rēx Regum,” Nayd said to placate his brother.
In a few short weeks, the Squad quickly earned a reputation under Crafræl’s leadership. They learned their lessons the hard way. But when they learned lessons, they never forgot them.
The first lesson they learned was that their instructors, optiō minors, were to be feared, not respected. Dispensing discipline and reprisal with total impunity. Crafræl took immediate note of the first tirone that was made an example of.
“Do I look like I want your respect, vermin!?” the instructor bellowed at one fawning tirone. The optiō minor yanked his cudgel free and bludgeoned the recruit to death before the platoon.
“Fear, not respect, will keep you alive, maggots. Now get back to your drills!”
The overseers of the new tīrōnēs were eight-year optiō minors, who were in their final year, preparing to become full ranked optiōnēs and join the legiōnēs. They ruled the younger tīrōnēs like drill sergeants and they were a force not to be taken lightly. These optiō minors had the authority to kill outright, and to punish any and all offences, even imagined ones, though they were mindful not to push the tīrōnēs too far—not until they were broken and brainwashed into their roles.
These gods were not above reprisal. In their fifth month of training, one optiō minor did not report for duty. The entire body of tīrōnēs were standing at attention in the mass humidity.
Crafræl’s maniple stood silently, but their optiō minor was conspicuously absent.
All activities stopped.
The corps of officers huddled together and held a whispered conference. Crafræl strained to hear what they were saying.
“Where the hells is Galen?’’ one asked.
“The rest of you search the camp,” the senior officer ordered, “I’ll question the boys.”
The optiō minor walked up to the maniple and looked from face to face. Most of the boys stood stone-faced.
“Which of you knows where your optiō is?” he demanded.
No one uttered so much as a peep.
The body was found the floating in a latrine pit. Crafræl’s entire maniple was crucified. Only Crafræl’s royal blood kept him and his squad alive. All the first and second year tīrōnēs were mercilessly flogged and received neither food or water for the remainder of the week.
Crafræl was considered a strange child, often heard having a one sided conversation to someone who was not there. Giving rise to more reasons for his being shunned by his peers.
In fact, he was not speaking to himself. But as a child he did not understand the seriousness of the person who visited him, and that only he could see. He knew who she was, who she claimed to be. He had been raised to venerate the gods, and to fear the, Why Mytheras goddess of war chose to reveal herself to him, he never understood.
While the Prīnceps kneeled in the chapel, Mytheras stood and his side.
“Can’t you make them stop? Can you punish them for hurting me?” he asked.
“No. What they believe makes them stronger when they hurt you and try to break you, will make you strong. In the end it will be you who breaks them.”
“Why me,” Crafræl asked, not for the first time.
“Because I have chosen you, mortal Prīnceps of Atlantis.”
“Why me and not my brother? He will be king one day, and I will always be a munifex.”
Mytheras was tall for a woman. She had a broad forehead, full wide check bones sand piercing blue eyes. Her dirty blonde hair was caught in tow braids than hung down across her shoulders. She carried a speak in one hand and a buckler in the other. She bound her chest with a corset of many belts, paldron and a studded leather skirt. He feet with shod in hob nail boots.
“Fear no man Crafræl, you are mine, and I have a destined you to my purpose.”
That night, Crafræl and his cousins confronted the members of Titan squad.
“You’re going down Prīnceps!” Jarïuk said.
“You are Titan’s leader Jarïuk, you and your squad are not going to say anything,” Crafræl said in response to Crafræl’s involvement in the death of the officer. “They won’t kill us because of my father, but you will be dealt with if you turn us in.”
“Idle threats,” their leader declared. “If we expose you, the officers will lock you in the hot boxes.”
“Idle treats?!” Crafræl smiled.
The Titan squad was a week in the infirmary; Crafræl was correct that the officers would not kill him, but the Prīnceps and his cousins limped away from the optiō minors’ intervention. Reminding themselves that there was no pain for munifex.
The Squad became a daily name; given in complaint of excessive fighting and disturbing the established order. Disturbing or disrupting the order was what they did best. With regularity, they were brought up on charges from unprovoked attacks on individuals or on full maniples, to disturbing the peace and cheating at scrimmage ball. They had become goons themselves. The Prīnceps would not be bullied, trodden on, or pushed around, if they were hit, they hit back harder.
Within one year he no longer resembled his twin. Where Nayd was fair of face and body, Crafræl accumulated scars the way his brother received praise.
Three months before The Squad graduated an incident happened that almost held them back an additional year.
The five of them lined up as usual at the mess. Not waiting their turn to get at the chow, they instead elbowed their way to the front of the line.
“Back of the line Het,” N’rel quipped, “the rest of us want to actually eat today!”
“You keep talking like that little man, and I’m gonna punch you in your big mouth,” was Het’s rejoinder. He emphasised his reply with a smack to the back of N’rel’s head.
“Ow! Hey, seriously lay off with the heavy hand, ya big lummox!” N’rel said, dodging the next blow.
Gr’San, a rival member in Javelin Squad, elbowed quite accidentally into H’Tor, who then stepped into Olàn, who then jounced into Crafræl’s back. As one, the five friends stopped and turned their heads in unison to see Gr’San staring at them in horror.
He was alone.
“Oh shit!” Gr’San began to say, his face turned an unhealthy shade of white. He took a step back, shoving a stand of cutlery to the ground, before thrusting a hastily retreating tirone out of his way.
“Gods no, not me!” he squeaked.
The Squad pounced.
In a moment, H’Tor and Olàn had Gr’San by the arms and wrestled him to the floor while N’rel and Het grabbed his kicking feet. Crafræl reached over the commissary counter, grabbed a dish rag and stuffed it into Gr’San’s mouth, silencing his screams of protest.
The other Tīrōnēs within the commissary hall, looked over, but did not utter a peep. Some watched, looking as though they wanted to do something but didn’t, some avoided eye contact while others simply tried to pretend nothing was happening at all.
The cousins hefted their struggling captive bodily from the ground and carried him into the alley behind the commissary hall. Between the five of them, they had Gr’San beaten senseless in short order.
The Squad made their way to the end of the field before stepping out into the open, far from the site of their nefarious deed. They walked across the grass fully intending to enjoy what remained of the meal time when H’aldr and the rest of Javelin Squad rushed them from across the open field.
N’rel had one of them in a headlock and was attempting to turn his face inside out with his fist. Another leaped on Crafræl’s back and bore him to the ground.
The Prīnceps rolled his attacker over and planted a knee into the man’s groin. He was rewarded with a squawk of protest. Crafræl finished him with an elbow to the temple.
The Prīnceps stood, only to be confronted by a fist on his cheek. Crafræl spun widely but aimed himself to collide with the back of H’aldr.
H’aldr shrugged trying to dislodge Crafræl, but the Prīnceps held onto the other’s back to steady himself. H’Tor took the distraction and planted a haymaker on H’aldr’s right ear, spinning him off to the left. Crafræl turned to get back at the boy who had punched him but Het already had a meaty hand wrapped around the boy’s face and was pummelling him with his free hand.
In the eye of this storm, Crafræl turned full circle to see what other mayhem he could unleash.
H’aldr reeled backwards, and Crafræl spun the other around, grabbed his shoulders as he head-butted H’aldr on the bridge of the nose. A spray of blood arced from H’aldr as he flew backwards to sprawl loosely in the dirt. His eyes rolled up into his head and his limbs twitched. The Javelin Squad was devastated. The last moving member of Javelin Squad was on his hands and knees trying without success to stand. As the Prīnceps moved past him, he punted the boy in the face, throwing him onto his back.
A few moments more and The Squad stood victorious, bleeding and blackened, yes, but they were the last men standing. Optiō Minor’s surrounded Crafræl and his cousins, and marched The Squad away to their punishment.
At their graduation, the officers of the high command addressed the graduates.
“Atlanteans! Graduates of the Akadamy” The Maximus Imperātor began.
“The Atlantean people do not work and fight only for themselves but for the generations not yet born. As graduates you have now been entrusted to defend our way of life and the preservation of our culture. You are now obliged to carry out this solemn duty as defenders of Atlantis. It is the humans that brought about the wrath of the gods! It is the humans that destroyed the bright and noble future that Atlantis offered them! Offered freely, with honour. Not as lords over them, but with an outstretched hand of friendship and benevolence. But they spurned us! The killed the gods that made them, nurtured them, and guided them.
I am remind you of these truths, because this struggle to survive and to return to the light of peace and enlightenment, is the burden of us all. Atlantis does not fight just for itself, but for our entire world…”
Disgusted by the platitudes and glowing speeches giving by officers with a chest full of ribbons. Crafræl felt loathing for the body of graduates, who lapped up this mindless drivel. He wondered why he was not clouded in his thinking as the others were, clouded by indoctrination.
Prīnceps Nayd spoke glowingly of the bright and glorious future of Atlantis. When it was Crafræl’s turn, he gave the briefest message, and quickly excused himself.
Later in seclusion he spoke to his Squad.
“I will not be the puppet of these evil men. I will not kill, unless I must kill. No more innocents will die at my hands.” He was resolved and determined not to give into the blackness he felt inside. A blackness he longed to embrace. His cousins and his friends, joined him in his vow.
Wild hair whipping about, the office clerk ripped the drawers out of the desk with a loud bang. The contents were dumped onto the usually pristine counter in a frenzy.
“Verdammt! Damn it! Pen, pen I need a pen!’ .
The room was in disarray, tidy workspaces left in shambles, ergonomic chairs upturned and left askew as the other workers had deserted their posts in a blind panic.
“I must write it down before I forget! I must remember before it’s too late!” Amid the piles of office supplies and papers strewn across the desk, was a single blue capped pen, “Ach, I see you there peeking out from under the… the… irgendwas, the… something or other… See? I can’t even remember what that blöd thing is and I use it every day!” The office worker wrenched the pen out from under the printer, yanking the stack of paper that hung out of the back, and slamming the pile of white sheets on the desk. As the pen swept desperately across the first page, the clerk scribbled fleetinng thoughts in an effort to impart the truth before it was too late. Knowledge of all that was and all that had happened was already fading into a murky grey of nothingness.
‘I am documenting this as my memory fades so that I will know and can tell others what happened to our world:
By A.D. 2125, global warming had reached its zenith. Coastal cities worldwide were inundated by a rapidly rising tide line. Countries around the world began the struggle for land and life —fighting for our very existence. Government rose up against government, country invaded country, and neighbour fought against neighbour. Any remaining human unity was swept aside in the blinking of an eye. The Land War of 2125 began with the cries of the dying. The first official act of war was Japan’s abrupt exodus and invasion of China. After that, it is all a blur, but I remember it was a dark time.
Far above the struggles of our world, the heavens aligned and a long string of planets formed a celestial bridge to our world.
Dubbed the Advent Herald Conjunction, this planetary alignment shattered the illusion that we were only life in the universe. As the sun rose on Europe, the nations ceased their warring, bickering, and disputes and turned their attention to a new development. A mysterious continent now stood in the Atlantic, off the coast of France and Britain.
Atlantis had returned from beyond the stars to the world of man. Absent for more than three millennia, the Atlanteans offered to help mankind in our most desperate hour.
Proclaiming themselves the progenitors of the human race, they freely offered their vast wisdom, medicine, and sustainable crystal energy. Atlantis sent advisors around the globe, offering advice in resource management, politics, economy, and well-being. We believed we had been saved. Our desperate world leaders gladly accepted aid from our antediluvian ancestors.
The Atlanteans gave us a vague reason as to their absence, and where they had been, I can’t remember what it was… and it is unimportant so I must continue the story. They did not say why they had gone or why they had returned; only that we were blessed that they had arrived in man’s time of greatest need.
To stabilize the planet and push back the rising tides, the Atlanteans offered a solution. They would need to use our nuclear fusion technology, because they had depleted their energies in transitioning back to Earth. They would use it to change the earth’s environment and stabilize the polar caps.
We had no way of knowing what they truly intended and since the seas continued to rise, lapping at our heels and flooding our cities, we humans gathered in agreement and accepted their proposal. We had no idea that we had just left the frying pan for the fire. With the power of the atom now at their command, the Atlanteans opened a rift through space and time, allowing the return of the ancient deities back to the Earth.
The gods appeared throughout the world, returning to their respective lands. They were wroth at humankind’s abandonment of piety and reverence for them and began their tyranny.
“Worship us!” they demanded, “give us sacrifice, and submit yourselves.”
Against the advice of the Atlanteans, our now-panicked human governments launched an initial flurry of bombs at the gods, killing some lesser deities, and wounding others, but that was the worst move we could have made. At the first sign of retaliation the Atlanteans returned to their island home, abandoning us humans to our doomed war.
The War of the gods began. Poseidon raged, whipping the oceans into a frenzy, drowning the naval fleets, inundating shorelines, and submerging even more cities.
Zeus rained lighting from heaven, crushing the Greek armies, and destroying their land. Electrical systems were disrupted, cities were left in the dark, and planes fell from the sky.
Ra dropped fire from heaven, scorching Egypt. Missiles were launched, but he easily swatted these aside.
Shangdi appeared in the midst of China, slaying the people with sword and with magic.
Here in Deutschland we have surrendered to the might of Odin and Thor. Our German military was torn to pieces as a host of Asgardian warriors waded into the sea of soldiers shattering all resistance. Bullets were ineffective since the dead warriors of Valhalla rose again and fought on.
The oceans raged, the skies rained death, lightening, fire, and poison.
Desperate, we even turned to our remaining weapons of mass destruction. Destroying the land we had worked so hard to restore. But even this did not stop the inevitable.
Having depleted their arsenals, their people’s blood soaking the earth, and their armies devastated, the leaders of the Earth finally bent their collective knee, and surrendered.
That was today. It began this morning and now, as the sun is just beginning to set it is already over… and if I don’t hurry I won’t finish and there will be no hope of remembering.
As penance, knowledge of science and our past was to be stripped from the minds of every mortal. Advanced technologies are being taken and even now I feel my heart and mind being warped back to old ways of thinking and doing. The gods have vowed to tear up the earth and reshaped the world in their own image; they will plough over existing civilizations and remould the peoples into ancient races lost to time. Ancient Kingdoms and cultures will be reincarnated and even Elves, Dwarves, and mythological creatures will be reborn.
No more will man self-govern, and all will bow to the rule of the gods. The first of the gods’ edicts have been given and blaze in our minds like lightning:
The first rule ~ Obey your gods.
The second rule ~ It is forbidden to kill a god.
The third rule ~ A king is vessel of the gods,
and therefore inviolate.’
Straightening up from writing, hand cramped from the effort, the clerk’s eyes cast about for a place to hide the papers. Across the room, the office worker spied a white box with blue numbers flashing 00:00. Running over to it, the worker yanked the door open to find a circular glass plate on a rotator.
“What is this?” the befuddled clerk asked out loud. “Useless! I need a safe place and this stück müll won’t protect anything.” Turning around and around, the worker searched, but nothing suitable presented itself. Tears began to flow, the office had become an alien landscape of unknowns and uncertainty. Running out into the hallway the clerk dashed into the next room. A maze of cubicles and tables, flat boxes with glass or plastic fronts blinked with a myriad of nonsensical patterns.
“No, no!” the office worker cried out, choking on phlem and emotion, shoulders wracked with sobs, “I don’t remember. No, not yet. Hold on!” Eyes cast about until the clerk’s eyes settled on a safe and an inkling of recognition floated to the forefront. “Okay, okay, hurry, mach schnell. Key, key, find a key!” Near the safe was a body, wrists slit and skin pasty white. A hurried search produced a ring with a handful of keys. Hands shaking uncontrollably, the office worker tried each one in succession, until the safe popped open.
Worship us! Submit! Forget! —Like an over-amplified loudspeaker these thoughts washed consciousness and memory out of the clerk’s mind like a tidal wave sucking sand off the beach and into it’s roaring mouth.
“But, I’m an Atheist,” the worker shouted back, dazedly looking around the room trying to remember what was to be done.
Another blast of thought, like shimmering poetry slammed into the worker’s mind. “Heilir æsir! Hail to the gods!” Resolve and will waivered like the last flickering of a spent candle. Only the indefatigable purpose of the goal kept the office worker going. Already the overwhelming need to kneel and worship buckled the clerks’ knees causing the clerk to lurch sideways and collapsed against the counter. Shoving the papers inside the safe, the office worker slammed the door shut with the last of fading urgency.
Kneeling, face planted to the carpeted floor, overwhelmed with a sense of unworthiness the office worker began to weep and gave up any shred of memory still left.
You are to be called Dusty!—and with those words, all thoughts of a previous life, memory or understanding was obliterated.
“Hail, Odin! Hail Thor!” Dusty shouted in a jubilant mantra, grinning in an expression of delirious thankfulness.