Authors: David Gowey
“Why yes, else they go to waste. Shall we begin?”
A thud and a wet splintering sound to Matthieu's right meant that the first barrel had been breached, and its contents subsequently sloshed onto the stone floor. He recoiled in terror, shrinking further into the wine of his own barrel as if anything he did at this point could spare him an assured death at the hands of the two intruders. A second was split, followed by a third, and then a fourth, all increasingly closer to his own. He did not know how many stood between him and the men outside; he only knew they were close and getting closer still.
More footsteps, this time almost directly in front of him. The gruffer-voiced man called out to his partner.
“And what about this one? Quite an old one, I should say. Should I break it as well?”
“Let me see,” said the other man, approaching. He was silent for a moment, and Matthieu did not allow himself to breathe as he heard the other man circling the barrel, even catching glimpses of torchlight as it flitted through the hatch on top.
“No,” he said. “No, this one is a Kamischkani, and a very old vintage at that. I would feel sorry to spill it all over the floor like the others. How about a drink instead? Just a little cannot hurt.”
“Are you sure? What if Lemaste finds out?”
“Nonsense! He will not know a thing. Besides, we shall make it a toast to our victory!”
“Hmm... If you insist, Brother.”
“I do insist, for it is not every day that one gets to sample such a grand old Kamischkani as this one.” Matthieu heard the man pull the little cork from the spigot in the flat side of the barrel, and a steady stream of wine came pouring out.
“To Leopold,” cried the first man, “and victory over the children of darkness!”
“To Leopold,” replied the other in his deeper voice. They could be heard lapping the rich, dark wine out of their hands before replacing the cork. Matthieu could feel his lungs beginning to burn inside him, as he had not yet exhaled. He quivered out of fear and the throbbing pain in his chest, waiting only for this nightmare to pass.
“We should go, Brother. There is much more left to do.”
“Yes,” said the one with the sing-song voice. “Let us be on our way. This house has already been given Kaschar’s quarter anyway.”
They continued their conversation until they had left the cellar and proceeded up the stairs again, into the hall. It was only then that the air came bursting out of Matthieu's lungs, followed swiftly by tears he did not care to stem. After all, if what the intruders had said was true, there was no longer another soul left in his house to see him weeping so.
Chapter Two: The Survivor, or Injustice
I will tell you of my first experience with death. I was nine years old, perhaps ten; my paternal grandfather had just passed away. Though the cause of death reported to the authorities was old age, I was to learn later that it was due to an over-familiarity with drink and lecher. Needless to say, the priest—having been newly transferred in from Meddelburg—was kept just as ignorant of this circumstance as was the civil magistrate.
After the prescribed mourning period, Timond Sartonné’s body was taken to the chapel for funerary administrations. My family sat in the front pew, though from our position I could not see my grandfather’s body. The service proceeded in much formality, from the lighting of candles as witnesses to the guardians of the abode of the blessed that the departed had not perished in sin—poor guardians they would be indeed if mere candles could shuttle my scoundrel grandfather past their gaze without question!—to the haunting benedictory dirge led by the priest.
As with all ceremonies of the Global Church, it was conducted in High Corastic rather than the “vulgar” tongue of Heilicon. My father, having taken to the classics in his university years, understood snatches of the ritual; these he noted to me in answer to my frequent questions. There was a sort of invocation, as I recall, directed toward the sanctified dead, to watch over the soul of the departed and ensure his safe entry into heaven. I also remember much chanting, though I am sure that few, if even the priest, understood their droning petitions word-for-word. All in all, an overwhelming spectacle, as I am sure it was intended to be. It would be no mean pauper’s grave for Timond Sartonné, who—though he did not merit the service rendered—was certainly not the most depraved individual to receive prayers at Saint Maunde’s.
Occasionally an aunt, cousin or business partner of my father’s would pass on, though I cannot say that their funerals had much of the same effect on me. From my perspective, all these were but marginal players in the great comedy of my life; one which would surely shuffle forward, act by act, until it had reached its joyous, laudable finale. Even my own mother, who departed this world far before great time, did so with such suddenness that I could hardly realize the import of her death until much later.
That is, until all of it came crashing down. I cannot say that I was ever particularly fascinated with death before that day, given how few my experiences had been, but I honestly could not avoid it. I recognized her face, pale and frozen as it was. I knew they were her clothes, despite the blood and torn fabric. I knew it was her body for all its appearance as a rag doll tossed carelessly down an abandoned flight of stairs. It was her, my Beate, and yet somehow my curiosity at her lifeless frame managed to overcome the soul-wrenching grief I felt; grief that is only known to those whose respective worlds have been destroyed.
Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page,
Matthieu had fallen asleep curled up inside the wine barrel. How many hours had past, he was not sure; however, he noted that everything outside was quiet once again. It took a moment for the remembrance of last night's events to return in full, but return they did. His mind was filled with screaming, the intruders in the cellar, and then an even more unnerving period of silence.
His legs were stiff when he stretched them across the length of the barrel. Reaching up, he pushed against the hatch on the top, only to find it just as securely closed as he had feared. Banging on it did no use and only hurt his fist. Looking down to the little spigot on the front, he thought to kick it. He could not stand inside, but instead he laid down with his feet against the end. Kicking both feet forward, he felt the moist wood budge slightly. If this barrel was as old as he believed it to be, then the wood must have been soaking in this wine for at least a century.
The second kick made a noticeable dent in the boards; one or two more, perhaps, and he would be free. A small trickle of wine must have been leaking out, for Matthieu could hear the soft patter of liquid on stone. Bracing himself against the sides with his arms, he prepared for one last kick against the wood. Sure enough, one more blow tore a hole in the barrel's end the size of his head. Hands feeble with fatigue ripped at the remaining boards until enough of them were gone to allow his whole body through, and he slid out onto the stony ground amidst a flood of Kamischkan’s finest wine. Looking down at his once fine clothes now stained a deep crimson, he was as a bloody newborn babe stepping out into the world.
No sound came from the corridor outside or from the stairs beyond. Darkness met him on the other side of the splintered door; darkness and blood. Liesl Hardt had been a faithful cook, a lively talker, almost a second mother to Matthieu in the year since his own had succumbed to fever. Now here she was before him, her broad apron crusted with blood. He turned away in horror but could not lose the sight of her empty eyes on his own. What was that he had heard the Mentites say the night before?
Kaschar’s quarter, they said.
Kaschar, the Doromins’ grave.
That was the moment it all began to come together in his mind. All those years of reports that the eastern lords were gathering masses to their cause. The many shipments of wool his father had spoken of that he once sent to Cyrnne and the dear price paid him to secure the necessary dyes; all the colors of the Houses of Ment, Garrand, Lemaste, and other lords either members of or sympathizers with the Mentite sect. The two men from the day before who came promising protection, but from what? Now Matthieu knew and it was too late to warn anyone.
But why attack Heilicon? Treasure? The Cyrnnish had grown wealthy enough on their own industry and besides, they were safer in their city. Their fortress churches above the Alabaster Gates had stayed the might of Toris for nearly a year, and that had been well over a century ago. The only other solution Matthieu could imagine was the fulfillment of all Lord Leopold Ment’s renowned preaching: the end of the world. A day of cleansing for the wicked and triumph for the just. If this was his doing, as the two men the night before had said, then there was little chance of anything left in the city outside.
He continued down the hallway, at first cautious of making a sound but gradually growing careless as his suspicion became knowledge: there was no one here left alive. He had not seen poor Anna Sartonné in death and now he felt himself pushing away the urge to find Martin, as a small voice giving him an even smaller hope. More silence met him in the dining hall, where broken tables and chairs littered the stone floor; this was where his father had been just moments before he had run screaming past the wine cellar. Behind one of the tables a familiar cloak mouldered in crimson and with that, Matthieu’s small hope was gone.
This house which had once held his entire life held nothing for him now. His only solace lay beyond the market square and towards the Serpent Gate on the eastern edge of the city. If Beate Kerns was somehow still alive in all this… He could not dwell on the thought long; he could only discover the truth for himself.
The sun that rose on the ruins of Heilicon seemed not to notice the scorched buildings or the corpses in the streets; it did not deign to pause for the smoke that still swirled around the collapsed, blackened shell of Saint Maunde’s cathedral or the blood that choked the canals and footpaths in the center of town. Neither did it halt in its course for the lone figure that trudged the muddy roads in search of anything left alive in the attack’s aftermath.
Matthieu could not determine how many hours had passed since he first climbed out of his wine barrel. Upon leaving the remains of the only home he had ever known in this city, he had seen bodies uncounted strewn across his path. He recognized none of them at first glance, if only because his revulsion prevented him from taking a second. Many looked as if they had suffered horribly for a time; still others were recognizable by their wounds as victims of the Mentite invasion. While he did not stop to inspect more closely, Matthieu thought he recalled seeing priestly robes amongst the dead, though its body had been removed of head and limbs.
He stumbled as if in a daze, knowing neither how many hours he had lain in the cellar, nor if more enemies lurked in the ruined buildings all around him. The only sound he heard, save the squelching of his feet in the mud roads, was the morning wind howling out of the east as it cut through burned timbers and blackened stone like a wailing specter.
Matthieu spoke not a word: what could be said? His mind could only combat the horrific slaughter before him by imagining himself in another place altogether, separated from the material world as if by some transient fog. Eyes did not focus on the dead, eschewing even the most vibrant hues the garments of now-murdered aristocrats could muster, for fear of being called back to reality by a familiar face. And yet, in spite of his best efforts to avoid dealing with this reality, he barely noticed his feet beginning to tread a very well-known path; one that would lead him to either his only joy in this horror or the greatest blow that could yet be dealt to his wounded mind.
Why he had hopes that Beate Kerns would have been spared this awful destruction, he would never be sure. This desire drove him on most unceasingly. Much later, Matthieu would come to see this feeling in a similar way to the compulsion long ago in his university years which had driven him to attend a dissection theater. In a special demonstration given by one of the chief anatomists of the day, the secrets of the human body would finally be revealed to all willing to leave behind fear and dogma in order to comprehend man at his most basic level.
Fascination had overwhelmed him despite his mind’s protests that what he saw could not simply
; he knew there were bones beneath his flesh and lungs within his chest, but to see God’s most noble creation deconstructed and placed on exhibit like a specimen—or like swine at market—defied everything he had ever known about man and his exalted state in creation. So close to the angels, indeed; yet in death, even a king would appear no more regal than a butchered lamb.
Still his feet carried him on. More and more he saw the scattered tabards of Cyrnnish and Heiliconian soldiers: the blue-and-pink of Lemaste and blue-and-purple of Garrand were prominent, but many more wore the gold-and-blue of Alfonse Mennish, Lord of Heilicon. Hundreds of corpses choked the market square and the steps to the City Hall. Ragged banners writhed in the wind all around him. He gave it no mind; his goal was clear.
At last, he arrived to the steps of her home and there he saw her. She looked like a beautiful carnival puppet whose strings had been cut, sprawled across the stone in one of her finest gowns; the blood at her chest and mouth told of attack by a swordsman. Matthieu’s already overwhelmed mind was now numb, for too much death had passed before his eyes for him to realize what it meant that Beate Kerns, his beloved, was now dead.
What took the place of sadness was a fatalistic musing: this form that lay at his feet had been but a few hours ago a vibrant human being, and now it would never rise again. How silly the living creature must be, he thought, to imagine that he meant something to the universe. Of all the multitudinous ways to die, they all led to the same end: a jumble of meat, blood, and bone left like a glove without a hand to wear it. And Beate was such a lovely glove. Before, he would have thought it a shame to imagine that he would never know her as his wife, but now that was far from his imagination. He merely saw and accepted: Beate Kerns was dead.
It took all his significantly diminished strength to tear his glance away from her frozen face, now completely drained of blood. His sick curiosity had been satisfied, and yet he felt no better for it. Drawing on the last of his will, he proceeded to the walls of the city. Several minutes of silent trudging brought him past the vacant market, flies now swarming over abandoned produce and meat. Here, a guardhouse stood a silent sentinel. There, a well-worn inn still smoldered where the Mentite crusaders sought to cleanse the city of the vice of prostitution. On and on the muddy road seemed to stretch, though at a brisk walk on a dry day it would not have taken more than a few minutes to reach the walls from Beate’s residence. Finally, Matthieu’s weary eyes caught sight of his destination.
The eastern Serpent Gate hung open, a gaping mouth upon the world. Matthieu squinted on account of the smoke and brilliant sunlight that spilled over the distant mountains and onto the ruins of his home. He was finished here, all obligations having perished with those he loved. Once he cleared the gate, he would enter the city’s farmlands that stretched nearly to the marshy river at the mountains’ foothills. After that, he presumed, his continued existence would be irrelevant.
He trudged along the road, already churned up by the fleeing mass of feet that had tramped through hours before. The mud was thick around his feet, weakening and pulling him down a little more with each step. Matthieu could not take anymore; the same sun that cared little for the skeletons of vaunted architecture behind him expressed no remorse for him either. In the blazing morning sun, his sight reeled from heat and exhaustion.
Gracelessly, his legs gave way under him. He crumpled onto his side as the muck oozed up around him like a gritty cushion. If he died here, who would know the difference?