Chapter 1:

Separation

There is a page missing from the text of my life, though scraps of the words written thereon still come to me unbidden from time to time. I know that this page deals with dissolution, an unraveling of self from semi-formed tapestry of youth to a mess of filament lying disheveled on the tavern floor. More bruises were added to my collection, though I was not sure who the assailant - or, more likely, assailants - were. What I do know is that I awoke to a splash of water on my face that smelt of day old piss on the morning of my birthday, with a pain in my head like I had been stabbed, groggily blinking my eyes awake to Rolf the tavern keeper’s ugly face. He was holding a bucket in his hand and a furrow on his brow.

“You may be a Lord’s son, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you sleep on my floor any longer.”

I rolled over, away from the prickly bastard, towards the front of the tavern. I settled in for a moment, hearing the tavernkeep make a displeased grunt and walk away on creaky floorboards. Once it could not be helped anymore, I opened my eyes. Shafts of sunlight were penetrating the front windows, catching motes of dust in the air and striking the worn wooden slats near the first row of tables.

“Fuck, what hour is it?” I said, turning back to the unpleasant lowborn man. He had returned to his position behind the bar and was wiping the wood with a cloth that was fittingly maggoty for an establishment like his.

“I haven’t been out to check the sundial since the cock crowed at about quarter after six, but I dare say three hours have run down since then.” He let glee break out on his face, smiling a mouthful full of broken brown teeth. He waited for some reaction for me before pressing on. I gave him none.

“I heard you telling young Carla that you were to be inducted into your father’s Order this morning.” His smile grew wider. 

“That is, before you puked ale up on yourself and collapsed from the bar. And before you woke up to tell the Miller brothers that their sister Theresa may as well trade in her shite singing voice and her poorly plucked harp for a harlot’s tights and sell her goods to the sailors down on the docks. ‘Course, you were already black and blue before your face made mates of their boot heels.” His grin looked as if it were going to stretch his face apart. 

“Best check your trousers, lad. There’s a stink upon you that is better suited to a privy than the confines of this fine establishment.” He laughed then, a hideous braying sound that reminded me of the donkeys the serfs kept on the estate. 

“Even less so to the halls of the Blue Cathedral.” He barely managed to choke the words out between guffaws.

I inhaled deeply, seeing red and willing it away. The trumped-up whoremaster was right. If I had not shit myself, someone must have shit on me. I looked down and noticed the crust of vomit on the lapel of my jerkin. The last jerkin that my mother had made for me, still beautiful after a decade of hard use, soiled with filth. Disgust ran through me. I shifted to get to my knees, the vice of hangover’s grip crushing my skull. A mucky feeling in the seat of my pants was matched by a cold wetness on the front. I staggered in a final effort to stand.

“Bugger the Christ-man, I’ve got to get to the Cathedral,” I breathed to myself.

The ceremony was scheduled for ten o’clock. And I was a mess. I looked up at Rolf and sized the peasant up. He had the same dimensions as me, a fat bastard, though he looked a bit shorter. Still, I could not show up in the rotten clothes that clung to me. I would not be spared the whip this time.

“Go into your rooms and get me some trousers, a fresh shirt and a jerkin.” I placed my hand on my hip. Mercifully, and inexplicably, given my state, my coin purse was still attached to my belt. It had yet some heft to it. 

“You know that I will pay you handsomely for your rags, Rolf. Just get me some damn clothing.”

-

I half-walked, half-ran down the road leading into the city. I did not want to sprint, which would have gotten me to the Cathedral quicker. I was, after all, a pudgy oaf. I knew my limitations when it came to my physical abilities. Looking a sweaty wreck in front of the mocking gaze of the citizenry as I took the Yellow would be bad enough, but moistening the flesh around my groin with overexertion would only bring the odour back. I hadn’t had time for a bath and I was already late. Besides, Rolf’s breeches bound the meat of my legs tight. I could no more run than I could hit Eric Wellan with my sword.

As the dirt of the outskirts turned to the cobblestones of the city proper, I thought about my father. Without a doubt would be angry to see his second-born dressed in the ill-fitting dress of a tavernkeep at this holy ceremony, even more furious to learn that it was because I had made a filthy mess of my own garb. I vowed to keep that detail hidden from the man, if I could. Thankfully, this was also a day of pride for him, something that might blind him further to the truth of his wastrel son. I would almost certainly escape his lashes, even though he was certain to have comments about my appearance. Rolf’s shirt and jerkin did not fit down my torso, leaving a stretch of belly poking out like a thin roll of bread.

Thoughts of bread reminded me that my stomach was churning with bile. I needed to eat. Fortunately, a portly baker had just set up his table along the cobbles of Roan Street, just minutes away from the Cathedral. Stopping a few feet away to retch into the gutter, I snatched up a couple of sizable brioches, flipped the man payment, and asked for some butter.

“Butter?” came the incredulous reply. “You knows we don’t have that ‘ere, sir. P’rhaps you can attend to Mr. Ivory’s shop, just over there.”

The baker pointed down the street to the wood of the dairy farmer’s market stall. I snorted, threw a couple of gold pieces to the baker, and walked over to Ivory’s.

“Butter,” I said, slamming a coin onto the wood of the stall.

Moments later, I was slathering the brioches with the contents of a small crock. I mashed the bread into my face, the din of my heavy breaths echoing in my skull. I stopped just outside the heavy doors of the church and struggled to get the second loaf down my gullet. Damnation, I thought, I should have asked Ivory if he had any milk as well.

“Andrew?”

I turned to face the voice resonant with incredulity. It was my older brother, Gerard. He was, of course, immaculately dressed in his leathers and chain mail, with the tabard of the Yellow Order flowing down over his chest and groin. Ah, the tabard. When I was younger, I would admire the great yellow dragon on white field crossed with black sword and mace. It was quite obvious on my father’s chest and back as I watched him from the window in the living room of our cottage. He would be coming home for days or short weeks or going off on campaigns for months at a time. I used to hate to see him leave. 

Now I wished I never had to see him again.

And here before me was Gerard, my brother. A golden boy in the truest sense of the word. The close cropped blond hair, blue eyes, and beautiful aquiline face stood in stark contrast to my mess of mousy brown, matching chestnut eyes, and evident corpulence. He was father’s first born, and to call him his favourite was among the least necessary statements in the small piece of the world we lived in. How could he not be? When he spoke, his voice never faltered. He was well loved by both the men of the Order and the women of the city. He never had to pay tavern wenches for sex - he got it for free from unmarried girls. And to top it all off, the bastard was a brown-noser, always pretending to one kindness or another.

“Are you alright?” 

There was feigned concern in my brother’s voice as we stood before the doors of the Blue Cathedral, with a matching expression on his face. Christ-man damn him, I thought, searching for the lie. I decided that it might not be a feint. Was the great Gerard Cardiff actually concerned for his failure of a brother? Had I really fallen that far?

Still, fuck him.

“I am fine,” I snapped, placing my hand on the great ring of the Cathedral door. Before I had a chance to yank the damn thing open, my brother placed his hand over mine.

“Please come with me,” he said. “I will get you some clothes that fit. You cannot go in there looking like that.”

There was no scorn in his voice, only sadness. How I wished for scorn. I recall thinking that disgust from him would have been preferable to the pity that this son of a bitch offered up to me, like table leavings for a crippled hound. Nonetheless, a change of clothing would reduce the risk of my father whipping me in spite of the auspiciousness of the occasion. I was never in the mood for corporal punishment. I followed my brother away from the doors of the cathedral.

Thankfully, the barracks of the Order were only a couple of blocks away. I tried to spend those few minutes in silence, but Gerard was not having it, even in light of my clipped responses to his questions.

“Rough night last night?” he asked, grinning at me.

“Eh, yeah, you could say that,” I responded. I never liked interacting with my brother. This comrade routine was not new. In fact, it had become tiresome. When we were younger and training together, the bastard used to strike me with his practice sword when I was not looking and make light of my fatness with the smith’s sons. Not for long, though. He ascended to knighthood within a year and left me rolling in the wind like the obese shit that I was. Soon after he became a knight, though, he changed his attitude toward me entirely. The shift was  seismic enough that I was not buying his wares. This was some put-on for the benefit of those watching our interactions. But I had to admit that did not explain his continued kindly demeanour in our private conversations.

“Today’s the big day, brother!” Gerard said, slapping my back in an entirely unwelcome way.

It was at times like these that I thought of my mother. How I missed her! She always had a patient ear for me, ever since I was a little boy. I would return home to the hearth every night to tell her about my life, all the pleasant times out in the meadows alone, away from the insults delivered by my peers for the state of my physical body, a body which deteriorated further into fatness as the years passed and I exited childhood. The pleasant times grew fewer and the storm clouds multiplied with the advance of time, and yet at the end of my day, my mother always had a smile for me and a sweet pastry freshly baked in the stone of the hearth. 

She had been my sanctuary, and she was gone! I had been left to pick up the pieces with a cold father and a brother whose mere existence rubbed my nose in the fact that I was a letdown.

“Big day for what?” I barked. “This is no honour, this grant of knighthood. I did not earn it. I still have yet to pass any of the tests, yet here I am, being knighted.”

“Details! If you are really concerned about your combat abilities, I can help teach you. I want that distance that has grown between us to come to an end. So would Mother, were she here. Think about it.” Still my brother smiled at me, his arm on my back. “What fun we will have together!”

“I do not want your fucking help, do you not understand that?” I fumed. “Ever since Mother died, I have been glad. Glad that Father has given up on me. Glad I do not have to hear him tell me every night that I should be spending less time shut up in my room or at the tavern and more time with you here at the godsdamned barracks or practicing on the field. I am not a knight, I have never been a knight, and now our dear father has used no small measure of guilt to goad me into accepting this terrible joke of a position in the ranks.”

“I will die out there, do you not understand that, brother?” I asked, the fire dimming in my voice. “I cannot fight. I am fat, useless, and a failure. I have spent seven horrendous years in training to your single one that saw you breeze through every test put before you. You were better than me in a month than I remain to this day.

“I just wish I was like you. Worthwhile, not worthless.” A tear started to well up in the corner of my eye. I willed it back into my head.

My brother’s face grew serious. “You have such worth already! Such worth. That said, of course I understand you, brother! Of course, of course I do! But let me tell you: it is not drinking and whoring and showing up a complete mess that will get you through this. You need to practice. The practice is rough, brutal stuff. I went through it - do you think it was easy for me? The hardest things always look easy from the outside. You have no idea what went on in here throughout the process,” he said, pointing at the side of his skull. 

“The only difference between us is that I did not dally between childhood and becoming a man. The things I had to drop! To let go of the world… You do not know the price of what you seek. But the debt will be paid before you are through.”

The last few words my brother uttered were choked with emotion. Was the chosen one about to cry about succeeding as a knight? The stones on the bastard. 

We arrived at the barracks, having each shut up during the last steps of our short journey. We crossed the red dirt of the sparring grounds, into the pavilion that housed the men. Mercifully, the place was deserted. Everyone was at the Cathedral, listening to Bishop Mountpence drone on throughout the morning service that preceded the consecration of any new military man’s service to the King. 

“Now,” he said, “You need a proper set of clothes. Come this way.” 

There was a grin on my brother’s face again, and I hated him for it.

The living quarters were made with dark wood dutifully chopped by the woodsmen of the City in a forest far off in the east. One morning when I was a child, my father had told me all about it, boring me to the point of the tears in the toast that lay before me on the breakfast table. Apparently, the black-grained wood was some form of ash that could withstand the heat of a dragon’s breath. I did not believe a word of it - neither the dragon nor the idea that something that we use to keep our hearths warm could be invulnerable to flame. 

Dragons. Imagine if were true!

I would be untruthful if I said the idea did not tug at some part of me. After all, I grew up reading stories of knights and dragons. But I knew it had just been my father lying to me for a reaction, a perverse action on his part to make me feel like a fool, all in the name of building character. I examined a wooden slat running across the wall. It did not look much different than the wood that father had chopped on our estate to build our miserable little cottage, simply a bit darker. What rubbish his stories always were! A practiced liar was my father, nothing more.

“Here,” my brother said, thrusting a stack of folded clothing into my arms. “These were supposed to be a gift for after you were inducted into the Order, but I guess you need them now. Matthew had your measurements in his file from the last time you were here.”

I looked down. An ornate green leather jerkin sat atop a brown shirt and brown leather pants. The cloth of the jerkin was stitched with silver and brown thread, a sword pointing down and a dragon encircling the blade and running all the way up to the top of the hilt. Matthew, the tailor, had not measured me for clothing for months. My gaze rested upon the belly that protruded. I was drinking freely of the ale. Had I become fatter since then?

“Thank you,” I said, looking up at my brother. “This is a kindness I was not expecting.”

“Ah, do not get all weepy on me,” Gerard said, smiling. “Go get changed. I will be waiting out in the yard.”

I walked into one of the rooms of the barracks. It was as spartan as you would expect for a knight’s quarters. There was a small bed with one of the thinnest mattresses I had ever seen atop it, covered with a white sheet tucked under a yellow blanket. Next to the head was a small night table. Under the bed, a chest built from the same wood as the rest of the structure was only partly hidden from view. The knights could not have what meagre bits of wealth they accrued from years of wage slavery in service to the King destroyed by dragon fire, I mused wanly. I realized that that very night night, I was to sleep in one of these bunks. The pounding in my head returned and I thought I was going to retch.

Why was I doing this? It was suicide!

Thankfully, the moment passed. I slipped on the clothing. I was surprised to find that there was no struggle. It slid over my bulk without any effort at all. I thought I had gained weight since last the tailor had measured me. My tits certainly looked bigger than they had been. Yet here I was, dressed in what can only be described as finely fitted new clothing, nothing stretching to accept me. I exited the room to find my brother waiting for me out in the yard again.

“From tavern wretch to the squire on the threshold of greatness, I bow to you,” Gerard grinned and made a mockery of the gesture.

That arse! Every time, when I let myself get carried away and think some form of kindness of spirit has attached itself to his being, he proved the lie of it. I shot him a glare and spit out words of thanks for the clothing. 

We passed the sundial on the way to the Cathedral. The morning’s service would soon be finished. Picking up the pace, Gerard shot out ahead of me, breaking into a half run. My headache pounded in the morning sun. Sighing, I kept up the pace and felt the sweat start to form on my skin and my breath leave me.

“Damn it all, Gerard, slow down!”

He turned around to smile at me, then picked up the pace. He started to trot, then broke into a run. I tried to follow, wheezing my way on for a while. I stopped, screamed, and gave him a vulgar gesture meant to signify a loose woman’s vagina.

“Go then, you son of a bitch,” I said to him. “You are no brother of mine. You think you can buy me off with gifts of new clothing? That you can give me a few scraps and then kick me like a dog when I am down?”

“Andrew, you live life too seriously,” he said, laughing. “I was only trying to make sure that you get to your own ceremony on time.”

“Yes, I will arrive a sweaty mess, eliciting pity and scorn from the congregation. Meanwhile, you, my brother who runs miles every day, will look as good as the morning sun. All the women there will want to fuck you as you stride up to the pews reserved for members of the Order. What few women will be in attendance for my consecration, anyway.” My words grew vicious again. “Too bad for them that you will cast them aside for buggery at the barracks with your brothers-in-arms.”

Gerard began to laugh again.

“Stop laughing!”

“Why would I not laugh when what you say is funny?”

We walked the rest of the way in silence. I gratefully noticed that, in spite of the hangover haze, as I had remembered to give my arse a proper wiping while I was at the barracks, no stink wafted up as I felt the sweat slide down my legs. 

Christ-man, life had to be better than this.

I gazed at the Blue Cathedral as we approached. It was on the corner of two streets in the core of Hightown, that part of the City reserved for the wealth and nobility. The building seemed to emanate out of the cobbles, the steeple stretching far above the large noble mansions that were erected next to it. The face of the building was made with a light blue marble, blue marble that housed stained glass images in the windows. Stained glass that depicted images of brutality: knights running swords through demons, blood spurting out on their mail, men savaging each other in a similar fashion, a man nailed to a cross and bleeding to death. Above the glass, I could just barely make out a crow taking flight from the cross at the top of the spire.

Why did a place holding itself out as a house of peace project such vicious images onto the city? Christianity, my parents’ faith, seemed horrible, especially compared to what little I knew of the other holy traditions in the city. But I had passed through their places of worship from time to time and had sometimes listened to them speak or watched them in prayer. Some men from the east, who followed a fat jolly god, seemed content to just burn incense and sit down with eyes closed. Others imbibed potions to give them visions of demons, a practice that sounded completely horrific and without any merit at all. Still others simply sat in huts with crackling fires until they reached the point of passing out. And they all proclaimed to know the truth of existence, one god or another with salvation up its sleeve. It was all shit, of that I was certain. The only world that was real was right in front of me, even if that world heaped insult after insult upon me.

Grinning, my brother pushed open the doors of the Cathedral, and ushered me in to the darkness.