Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Gift Part Thirteen

The Brotherhood of Poor Knights of Saint Michael had commandries throughout most of the known world. The chapterhouse near Bridgetown was one of the largest. It was founded a thousand years ago as a protection from orc raids off the grasslands. The orcs had been reduced to bedtime stories to frighten children and the forest had pushed itself ten miles into the grasslands leaving the chapterhouse actually in the forest. Long established farming hamlets surrounded the large stone fortress and its outer baily wall. The farms provided food for the chapterhouse and the knights and brothers provided protection both physical and spiritual for the surrounding hamlets.
The forest nearest the chapterhouse and hamlets was a tame wood full of alders and thick old maples along the riverbanks and creeks while planted oaks provided mast for the hamlets for the hamlets' swineherds and their domesticated charges. Mature chestnuts and walnuts made up a good portion of the wood as well. There was a grove of elven trees planted as a gift from the queen of the Hidden Folk nearly five centuries before so they still had another fifteen hundred years before they were fully mature.
The charcoal burners and woodcutters left that grove alone but it was a favorite for young married couples as folklore said children conceived there would have the blessings of the elves and be happy and healthy their whole lives.
For Justin riding into the broad flat settled lands near the chapterhouse it was a strange experience. Kantrus had spent many hours there pouring through the large library and consulting with the brother-scholars. Justin was seeing the place for the first time. It was the kind of settlement that every roleplayer recognized; small cottages and barns clustered around a central well or other feature and in the center of it all a great stone fortress. The largest building was topped with a gold-steel cross that gleamed in the sunlight. Most of the great fortress was situated towards the grasslands and the Union river was the source of the water for the fortress' large moat.
The group was well known and well liked at the chapterhouse and surrounding little communities. Justin had many friends and acquaintances and they stopped to say hello or to answer friendly questions before they made their way into the open iron-bound oak doors.
Justin felt the air of the tunnel wash over him like dipping into a cool stream. The ceiling was too high to reach even if he were to stand in the saddle and filled with murder holes and dog-legged making it harder for any attackers to batter their way through the iron portcullises and inner gate at the end of the tunnel. The fortress had not faced a serious threat in well over a hundred years but the Brothers took their duties seriously both military and spiritual and the fortress was kept in a state of constant readiness and repair.
What he was most interested in was their libraries. The printing press had existed in the known parts of this world for hundreds of years. Brought first by the freebooters and Spaniards swept up from the Bermuda triangle, it was first used by the various Christian churches to print their own versions of the Bible. In some places the press remained the tool of the church or never caught on at all in others, where something like the industrial revolution occurred the printed word became ubiquitous.
Through Kantrus, Justin knew that Grossdeutschland had a vast printing industry both to support their bureaucracy and their powerful propaganda apparatus. That was the one nation that had deliberately brought their old culture with them to the extent that they could. Film did not work so the vast torchlight parades and military ceremonies were no longer shown to the whole world but the citizens of the Nazi run state swam in the national socialist culture.
The only real rival near Grossdeutschland was the Empire, a group of Romans who had been brought over when Pompeii exploded. They had changed little in the over two thousand years since their coming to this world. Although they had split in a religious war nearly five centuries before, the Empire remained the largest land area of the known world if no longer the most ambitious. Justin hoped to find details of where the Nazis had first opened their door and how they did it. He did not expect the Nazis to have left a deliberate trail but the arrival had to have been noticed by someone.
By the same token efforts to obscure events to hide their place of origin might signal where to start looking as well. Kantrus had been a student of magical gates, that was the reason he had lost himself from the Faery realm where he was born. He suspected that he would be able to piece together the entry-point of the Nazis if given enough time.
The inner courtyard was much warmer as the flagstones and walls reflected back the sunlight and heat leaving them all blinking away the bright light when they emerged from the shadow of the gatehouse. “God's Blessings on You,” a tall gray haired brother called from where he was pitching manure from the where the messengers’ horses were kept ready.
“May God and Mary Bless you as well!” Sean replied.
“Felt the need for some penance, your Holiness?” Sean asked the gray haired man. Although he was obviously past his 'three score and ten' the Bishop was still a vigorous man with corded muscle standing out from his rolled up sleeves.
Bishop Geal was the religious leader and Grandmaster of the Order although no longer a field commander he lived under the same discipline as the other brothers and hard work was considered good for the soul as well as promoting humility.
“Not this time, Brother Imhotep,” Geal replied. He nodded to his two assistants who were working with him. “Although, I think my good assistants wish I would find a less messy way of getting my morning exercise.”
The Bishop's assistants were well known to the group both were young men who showed promise and initiative but that was just the kind of man who would rather work his muscles with blunted swords or lances from the back of horse rather than with a wheelbarrow and shovel from in back of a horse.
“Brother Grey, Brother Woodman,” Sean greeted the assistants, “God's Blessing on you as well.”
“May God and Mary Bless you and your family, Brother Imhotep,” the two chorused together. Brother Grey sounded resigned to his 'martyrdom' but Brother Woodman was cheerful. Brother Woodman had been the son of charcoal burners and had spent every spare hour learning from the brothers at the chapterhouse. Sometimes men who rose from humble beginnings resented the manual labor that reminded them of their origins. Other men like Brother Woodman remembered how much harder even his grandparents had it even now his parents and grandparents were doing the back-breaking work to make charcoal and distilling tar.
Sean laughed, “When you are finished with this round of your never ending task here, could we have a private conversation at your convenience?”
“Indeed,” the bishop nodded, “just finishing here anyway. I was planning on teaching these youngsters the finer point of sword and shield but that can wait. I'm sure the swordmasters can do nearly as well.”
Justin slid off his horse and handed the reins to the grooms, mostly young boys who were just learning what it took to be a brother and knight. Being comfortable around and with horses was an absolute requirement for a military order consisting mostly of heavy cataphracts, lighter horse archers, and dragoons who fought as infantry but rode to battle on horseback.
The order also trained paladins and battle mages and war healers into integrated corps that worked with the other knights and soldiers or who took on specialized tasks on their own or in small groups like group Justin was with. These specialist units were an elite among the highly trained and tested brother knights if only for the effort it took to learn the ways of power and magic as well as being a skilled fighter. No one, not the most powerful mage or channeler of holy power could be a brother of the order if they could not perform as soldier and knight. There were many other options even within the church for people with a talent for magic but not the skills of a soldier or warrior.
While the order was a brotherhood and nearly all male there were a few women who were called to the vocation of a paladin, battle mage, or war healer. Michelle knew that women in her world simply physically could not compete with men in sports much less the military. She had no illusions about that but here the universe or God or something gave women truly called to a militant vocation the physical ability to at least keep up with the men or sometimes in rare cases like herself and her daughter to actually be among the best of the best. Champions for their faith and capable of standing toe to toe with the strongest of enemies whether natural or supernatural.
There was a separate barracks for women next to that for the married knights. The chapterhouse normally kept a suite of rooms available for Michelle and her family. There children had not grown up here but had been frequent visitors and they operated in the Order's interests enough that they made more than occasional use of the facilities here. Except for the large libraries found on Atlantis or the Elven kingdoms, no one had finer collections that the order.
Justin was hoping that the library would hold the key to solving their biggest problem; where were the Nazis planning their breakthrough and how could they stop them? He greeted old friends as he made his way to their suites. His room had always been set at the end of hallway but he asked Andy if he could move in with him next to his parents. Although Kantrus was centuries old, Justin was not and he felt very much Justin rather than the character he had created.
Andy was glad to have his friend join him in his room. It soon became clear that Dog and Riddick would abandon their masters to sleep on the floor with the boys although Don suspected that both animals would wind up sleeping on the boys' beds rather than the floor. After the midday prayers they met with the bishop.
Bishop Geal met with them in his inner chamber. It was furnished with well-made but simple desk and chairs and shelves of books on the walls. An armor and weapons rack stood next to his wardrobe and a well-cared for but obviously well-used suit of plate and mail hung on the rack.
They were shown in by his elderly assistant Brother Samuel. Samuel's nearly bald pate and frailty reminded Justin of his own changed state. Kantrus had seen Samuel go from a vigorous man of middle age to this slowed and weakened state. His parents were Tuathe De so they would live very long lives as humans measured them. Some never appeared to age but would they one day be frail and slow as Brother Samuel was now?
The bishop was wearing the plain black uniform of the order, tunic and trousers that could go under padding and armor and a plain pair of boots. The only marks distinguishing him from any of the Brothers bustling down the halls or working in the courtyards were his cross which was gold on a green and white cord and his ring.  Justin bowed when he entered only Michelle and Sean kissed the Bishops ring although they did have a casual relationship with the bishop they were acutely aware of their need for the Holy power that they channeled and were not completely sure what might or might not cause them to lose the gifts they had been granted. After the bishop greeted the people he blessed the animals as was his habit. The bishop obviously liked animals and was considerate as he could be. Though he needed animals to work for his order as mounts and pack animals he never took their efforts for granted and always extended what kindness he could.
“Bishop Geal,” Michelle began, “We have something to tell you that must remain in utmost confidence.”
The bishop signed for his assistant to provide his guests with refreshments and replied, “Confession is an individual rite generally but if this is something you have done as a group -” he trailed off and Scott answered, “Oh, no your Holiness, we've naught to confess that way.”
The bishop retained a politely interested expression until Michelle interjected, “No he's not serious, Sco-, uh, Malmir. His Holiness is just having fun with us.”
“And at your expense as well,” bishop Geal laughed. Andy was the first to join him but eventually all of them were laughing.
“I'd like Brothers Woodman and Grey to remain. They will be my successors or perhaps his closest advisers and they need to learn to deal with sensitive information.”
Michelle glanced over at her husband who nodded.
The sharp-eyed bishop did not fail to note the gesture, “So it is a matter where the husband has as much say as the wife rather than that, that falls under the authority of the Church itself.”
“There is some of both, your Holiness,” Don replied apologetically, “The Church is involved and we will ask it to become more involved but there is more as well and it does concern our family of which I am the head.”
The assistants tried with varying degrees of success to hide their scandalized feelings about their church's and order's authority as well as the authority of a paladin a position of great honor and esteem. Geal laughed, “Oh, I think you two have managed to upset our good brothers. Connor Silver-Arm is correct he is the head of his own house. Most paladins whatever their circumstances do not marry. Connor was a novitiate here where he met his wife and he was the one who encouraged her greater devotion.”
The younger men looked at the man they had always presumed was younger than they were with calculation. Both Geal and Don laughed.
“We were novitiates together,” Geal explained. “He's the one who broke my hand showing me the proper way to take a sword from someone although I suspect it was not as accidental as it appeared.”
“No,” Don confessed, “It was not, 'the burned finger remembers best'. Although I was just trying to dislocate your finger.”
The assistants didn't try to hide their surprise and outrage that anyone should harm the head of their order.
“Oh do not take it to heart,” Geal told them, “It was long ago and I was arrogant about taking instruction from a dung-footed Tuathe De.”
“Sissified city-boy,” Don said quietly and both men laughed again.
“I am afraid we will provide terrible temptation to gossip if we continue, Connor. Let us speak of your more immediate needs.”
Don sobered a bit, “Alright, this will be hard to believe and maybe harder to keep to yourselves.” He didn't look at the assistants but that last part was clearly for them.
“I know my men best, Connor.”
Don nodded his head, “Of course. How to begin?”
“Beginnings are best started from the first and moving to the last. I know your brother Denis doesn't agree, he tells tales in the order he thinks most interesting but fortunately in this you are not your brother.”
“Perhaps he should be the one to explain this. It sounds like one of his tall tales anyway.”
Don took a deep breath, “We are not who we appear to be.” He paused to see how the bishop would deal with the enigmatic statement but Geal only raised his eyebrows and kept a polite expression waiting for Don to continue.
“We are from another world, another universe or realm further than Faery. We have been fitted into this world like pieces of a puzzle but we also have other names and had other lives.”
“That is not exactly news to me,” Geal surprised everyone except perhaps Sean and Michelle. “I knew something was different the moment we spoke at the gatehouse stalls. Thinking about it I found myself with a greater mystery and a voice whispered to me that not only was something different but I was different.”
“Do not trouble yourself with trying to remember even my brother did not remember although he noticed the differences.”
“He tries to play the jester but you're a fool if you let yourself think so.”
“He is the smartest man I know or knew in both worlds.”
“There is that other world you spoke about,” Bishop Geal gestured towards the bowl shaped 'globe' of the world. The known world was a very small portion of the bowl's surface and a golden sphere was held in place by curving silver rods above the surface of the bowl. From what Justin remembered, the 'known world' had figured out the actual size of the inner-verse thousands of years ago even if they had no real way to explore more than a tiny fraction of their world.
“It truly is much smaller than this one and 'inside-out' to your view,” Don replied. It is sphere that orbits a sun and has a smaller body.”
“A moon,” Geal said with a little awe. Stories of a sun and moon were still parts of folk lore and legend in many parts of the world and travelers to Faery often reported sun, moon, and stars.
Geal rose and waved his guests back to their seats he strode to his book shelves and pulled a strange volume from his shelf. The book was small in height and length but very thick for that and had strange lettering on the front “The World Almanac and Book of Facts”.
“This came from a ship salvaged by Sea Elves who sold it to a trader in Bridgetown knowing that I collected such. This book describes that world and matches much of what the Church herself teaches.”
They discussed the almanac and Don explained what he had learned from 'Sally', their experiences since they came and how they had been left with memories of the other world when they translated. Don was curious as to how Geal had been able to sense the differences with his friends.
“I am not head of a chapterhouse of an order of magic using knights because I am a bishop,” he said with a wry smile. “I am a bishop because of who I am and the men and women,” he nodded to Michelle, “that I lead.”
“We are the Church's shield and sword cutting down our enemies or cutting away falsehoods to find the truth. Indeed, being able to discern truths from deception is one of the most important gift certain members of our order possess.”
“So I knew you were not all as you seemed but that you were, well you,” Geal finished obviously frustrated with the limits of plain language to describe something spiritual.
“Did the part of the world that was here before your 'translated' world change? Was it destroyed to bring you here? Was it the same and you just added?” Geal mused. “I see no way of knowing any of those answers and would it make any difference if I did?”
He held up the leather bound book.
“I am not able to read this book without magic. However, with translation it tells me that the one thousand nine hundred and thirty sixth year Olympics were held by Germany. The same government that conquered and rules Grossdeutschland. They did not come here as conquerors. They came fleeing defeat. That much we have been able to piece together despite their reticence on the subject. They were remarkably organized and able to conquer a big part of the world at the edge of the known world. They took a decade to prepare but since that time have never stopped expanding.”
“The only wars they have lost have been against the unlikely alliance of the Empire and Atlantis and when they made war on the Sea Elves. Their ships and men are vulnerable at sea but their Sea Havens are nearly unreachable by the Grossdeutschland navies. Faery is difficult to reach for those who are uninvited.”
“Now you tell me they wish to reinvade their original world. Further, the process will kill millions here and there. We must stop them, assuming that this 'Sally' was not deceiving you?” Geal asked.
“No, I don't believe so,” Don replied, “Sally may have been deceptive about who she was when we knew her in the other universe but I doubt we would have believed her if she had told us the truth of her nature.”
“Seeing that there are real Nazis here and their activities I cannot doubt they would be willing to set two worlds ablaze just to regain the power they lost previously. That part of Sally's tale is likely true as well. The Nazis that founded Grossdeutschland are likely connected to their occultism and mumbo-jumbo they believed in our world.”
“The joke is on our people. For nearly a century we've believed that there are no supernatural explanations for anything.”
“I understand you say that miracles and magic are rare in your world, so rare that most believe they do not exist at all,” Geal replied. “If magic was that weak in my world I would likely discount it as well.”
“Magic is woven into the very fabric of this world,” Justin interjected, “Everyone has seen it work a hundred times in their lives. They look up at the light-giver that has no possible way of working as it does and know that there is magic.”
“Every sailor that meets the Sea Elves ships shimmer out of nothing on their great winged sails sees it. Every farmer that shares the Yule feast with the household spirits sees it.”
“Your life here is better for it,” Justin said with the certainty of a wizard, “but I wish I were home or I was myself but that is not what Sally thought she needed.”
“I wouldn't say that it is an unmixed blessing,” Scott replied.
“We do not need to fear the dead will find themselves restless or that werewolves will plague a town. We need not fear that a wizard will conjure up demons from his working or a door open onto unnamed gulfs of time or space.” Thinking about the Nazis' attempt to open a gateway he added, “Well not normally anyway. No one has a memory of anything like that so it must not have happened in a very long time if ever.”
The bishop asked them probing questions and soon Justin found himself weary from seeking inside himself for answers he was not able to completely explain even to himself. Others began to try with varying degrees of success to hide the effort it was taking and their fatigue from the battle and the forces they had used in that battle with the hags.
“I am sorry,” Geal said with a sigh.
“I kept you a bit longer than courtesy allowed because I find that often truth may come when the mind is relaxed or so fatigued that our normal preconceptions no longer hold much sway but you all need refreshment and a break. Let us get some fresh air in my garden.” Geal had his assistants fetch lunch and more drink for his guests while he ushered them into the garden just off of his private chambers.
The garden was a riot of color. Many of the trees and flowers were gifts from Faery and a fountain played in the middle. It had been built a century ago by Atlantean artisans with leaping dolphins, merfolk at play and seashells of all shapes and colors decorating the basins and sides. Unlike plain stone work or painted stone work the Atlantean decorated stone was as bright and vibrant as the day the artist finished. Several millennia would pass before the stone would erode or the colors would fade.
Justin breathed deeply of the scent of the elven trees and flowers so like the flowers and trees of his lost home. Still he had no idea if the realm Kantrus had lived in existed at all. No one had ever been able to tell him and not a single book mentioned the details he remembered so vividly.
Some realms matched some of the details of his memories but none matched all of them. It left both sides of his nature wistful but Justin and to a strange degree Kantrus was growing more content with the way his new life and family were coming together. His mom and dad looked different but they were still the people he loved. Where it mattered there was no difference. Grandparents and other family members that had died since he was younger in the other world were alive here. He decided that whatever happened if he did or did not find his way back to his old realm it did not matter the family that cared for him and loved him were here.
He was not sure how long he had been lost in thought but Brother Woodman cleared his throat to get Justin's attention. The brother was holding a basket with bread, cheese and sliced meats as well as a couple of flasks and bottles.
“Kantrus can I offer you anything?” Woodman asked politely but with a hint of impatience.
“Justin, that is my real name,” Justin replied, “I know it sounds odd but I prefer my own name.”
“Of course,” the normally cheerful brother was obviously troubled but did his best to digest the information, “You still remember me as a child? You visited our home once as a guest of my dad. You met while you were walking in the woods near the Elven glade?”
“Yes,” Justin replied, “I have all those memories but I have another set that is much more real and I suspect that while both sets are 'valid' in their own way, I am meant to be Justin rather than the wizard Kantrus.”
“Justin does indeed sound more like a more common name. It is of course, common in the Empire as Justinian and shortened in the Avalon kingdoms as Justin or Justis.” the brother replied. He gave Justin a tentative smile. “I am sure that we will remain friends.”
“As am I,” Justin grabbed several items from the basket including a cloth to spread on a bench under the trees. It would never be in sunlight as it never moved during the day so it was still cool.
“My dad, Don, uh, Connor, gave an explanation of how we came here in brief outline. Sit with me while we eat and I'll fill in the important details,” Justin offered as he swept leaves from the bench before laying down the cloth.
“Certainly, you can tell me all of your world without magic,” brother Woodman replied.

“Oh, there are wonders,” Justin replied with a smile, “Let me tell you about video games.”

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