Will is a member of a little-know branch of the Gaian Church named the Verdurine Order, sometimes known as the green knights. While many Verdurines are commoners, Will is from a family of border lords. His family rules a territory on the edge of the Barony of Raolin, east of the capital city of Maycot. Maycot is a fortified city – adjacent to the raiding Orrish from the east, sometimes encroaching Ducateon outholts out of the Tolkisson range, and raids from the “Free City” of Ados and its undying masters to the north. Will Durian is from the Delchonae branch of the Delchon family. The family’s ancient duty to stop raids in the eastern family lands of Green-Spread-on-the-Kriff (the small river Kriff in the Kriff Basin) and to warn of and delay invasions. There is a fortified town and 3 villages, plus a few hamlets and an ancient family lodge. Usually they succeed, though often at a steep cost.
The Green Faith—the Old Faith—is more common out on these borders than in civilized areas. When at a young age Will showed an aptitude for certain of the green Mysteries, he was initiated with his parents’ blessing—and with the understanding that he must still be a warrior first, holding his family’s ancient trust as guardians of the border. Will had no trouble with that stricture. Will was a fighter. He was not just someone who wanted to defeat the bad guys and make the world all safe—most everyone wants that. He was the kind who was going to fight anyways, and needed a positive channel to keep from becoming the kind of person you couldn’t… couldn’t have around where there isn’t fighting. And even as a child, he knew himself well enough to recognize that fact.
The old priest and priestess initiating Will into Gaian magics recognize it too. He shuns the more powerful healing spell in favor of the quicker one, and prefers weapon-enhancing cantrips over those that are more utilitarian. A messenger is sent. A woman arrives, wearing a green belt, a stone leaf token, armor, and a small arsenal of weapons. She tests Will, who meets with her approval. Further negotiations occur—Will will be a squire-probationer of the Verdurine Order; in exchange, the green belts (and Will himself) will aid in defending the border against invasion and major raids. The Gaians often use euphemisms and ellipses (such as “a green belt” or “the green belts”) to refer to the Verdurine Order. This is in small part a deliberate obfuscation—those not in the know who overhear a chance remark will continue to be ignorant, in much the same way (though not to the same degree) that thieves’ cant protects thieves. In larger part, it is simply that many in the Green Church are a bit squeamish about these hard-eyed killers—each a more deadly predator than any wolf.
Young Will finds himself riding out of town behind this woman that he barely knows. His training begins before the journey ends. While he had some previous training with sword, knife, club, and bow, Verdame Melandra is made of different stuff. She calls out every mistake, and clubs him soundly for the stupid ones. Once he arrives at the nearest Verdurine mother’s house, he finds that Verdame Melandra is just one of more than half a dozen stern taskmasters into whose hands he has been given. The Verdames and Grensieurs care little for mistakes, less for foolishness… and least of all for cruelty.
Will loves his teachers. The other young probationers grouse and complain about the constant drills, the hard physical labor, the older passed-squires who are given authority over the younger probies. They are being pushed to what they thought were their limits, and beyond. It is just what Will needs. Will thought he was tough when at ten years old he whipped the Vaes brothers, twin bullies two years older. Now he begins to get an inkling of what tough really is. The education isn’t entirely physical. There are scholarly subjects, too. History illuminates how and why people have fought in the past. The natural world reveals creatures which know nothing of war—only survival. When in the care of the oldest of the knight-instructors, Grensieur Ojhan, the grousers often get quick and incisive answers to their complaints. “How do you expect to command an entrenchment if you don’t know how hard and how long a person can dig—from your own experience?” “Do you think the shambling dead will be slower to snatch your
head off because you ‘weren’t ready yet’?” “No Orrish is going to fall down dead because the bolt you loosed by moonlight was close. Again! And this time, keep both eyes open and exhale as you release!” Not all of the instructors are full knights; two of the weaponmasters are a lay brother and lay sister. Early on, the largest boy, Timmuk, suggested that Will shouldn’t be allowed to use his magic to enhance his club or staff in training bouts. Sister Evadne laughed harshly and loud, then stopped abruptly. “So stop him.” An eagle would have flinched from her stare. Timmuk did try to stop him, a little while later. No one except Timmuk and Will knows how the fight ended, but the subject never came up again. Will gets more practiced at using the magic he is initiated into, while the other squires—probationer and passed alike—gain valuable practice fighting against someone magically skilled.
And perhaps the students get an inkling of the cold fact that battle is no game. Perhaps. Will and the other squire-probationers grow older, and the time of Testing approaches. There is little talk about the Testing… and less warning when it arrives. It is the night of the First Quarter—the waxing half-moon. Will is awakened by Grensieur Ojhan’s sharply-whispered “Move out. No packs.” This is all the warning Will needs to find his boots, mail, weapons… and a belt pouch with some jerky and trail bread. He has learned that “no packs” doesn’t always mean “short trip”. In the
darkness he hears the other probationers at similar activities. It is late enough in the year to be above freezing, and late enough in the night to not be much above. They travel for less than an hour, so the place they arrive at should be familiar—by now Will and the other squires have marched, stalked, clambered, and crawled across the nearby lands for literally years. Nonetheless, the small rocky outcropping shaded by huge trees is new to Will. Several other knights, three of them unknown to Will, await the small group around a tiny bed of coals set low enough to be
invisible until they are almost on top of it. The ceremony begins immediately with little fuss or fanfare. As soon as the squires are settled in a
rough half-circle around the fire, the knights begin to speak in turn. One of the instructors from the motherhouse: “I am Grensieur Volkov. I am here as Witness to the Testing.” A huge Pine Tribesman: “I am Grensieur Molon Tog. I am here as Warder to the Testing.” The barbarian stalks silently into the trees. “I am Verdame Melandra. I am here as Witness to the Testing, and as knight-guidant to three of those to be Tested, Timmuk, Gladys, and Will.” The knights continue on with their simple, no-frills ritual. Two more Warders, an instructor and another stranger, disappear from the faint circle of firelight. Knight-guidants claim the remaining probationers, one, two, three at a time. The remaining person present, a woman with iron-gray hair but unlined features, shifts slightly. She has been leaning on a long lance, giving an impression not of age and infirmity but of the indolence of a common soldier with no assigned task. All eyes snap to her. Without appearing to have moved a muscle, she has shifted from lounging barracks rat to a leader who expects to be obeyed. “I am Verdame Akshago, Aesche Prior to the Verdurine Order. I am here to invoke the Testing.
“In Gaia’s name, I invoke the Testing.” And just as simply as that, the First Spear, the senior battle-captain of the entire Order, no longer
commands attention. That goes to a new presence. An impossibly tall woman with lustrous green skin stands to the side of the fire, hands folded on the quillons of a sword whose hilt stands chest-high on her—and taller than anyone else present. She does not step from anywhere. One moment there is a gap in the circle between the knights and probationers; the next, that space is filled. “IN GAIA’S NAME, I WILL TEST THE WORTHY AND THE UNWORTHY.” Her voice is not especially loud, but is so penetrating that all other sound seems to dim while she speaks. To Will, the gigantic woman could be Gaia herself, had she not made it clear that she is a different entity. “KNIGHTS-GUIDANT, APPROACH AND PRESENT YOUR CANDIDATES.” “Holy Aventurina, I am Verdame Melandra. I present Timmuk, Gladys, and Will.” The others are presented just as simply, and when they are done the knights have moved around the fire to cluster opposite the towering green figure. She sheaths her sword on her back with a truncated ringing and strides around a quarter-circle with the grace of a luminous green panther before turning to face the squires. “I AM GOING TO ASK EACH OF YOU A QUESTION TO WHICH YOU CANNOT LIE. IT IS A VERY SPECIAL SORT OF QUESTION. ANYONE CAN LIE WITH WORDS—EVEN ONE SUCH AS I, SOMETIMES. BUT NO ONE CAN LIE WITH WHO THEY ARE. NOT IN THIS PLACE, NOT AT THIS TIME. YOU MAY BECOME SOMEONE DIFFERENT AS THE YEARS PASS—SUCH IS THE WAY OF THINGS. BUT IT IS WHO YOU ARE NOW THAT WILL DETERMINE IF YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE GAIA’S KNIGHT; AND THAT DETERMINATION WILL BE MADE BY… A LEAF.”
If the squires had been in anything like a normal state of mind—say, on the training grounds—that last declaration might have shocked a laugh out of them. Instead they watch quietly as she plucks green, new ash leaves from one of the overhanging giants and sets one in the hand of each young squire. Enormous wings unfold from the green form’s back and fan sparks from the coals. As they swirl around Will, she speaks to him.
“WHO ARE YOU?” “I am Will, Will Pledge Durian, second son of Sir Valiance Skill Durian and Celerity Faith Durian, Lord and Lady of House Durian.”
More tumbles around in Will’s head but cannot escape his mouth. Will, not William? Yes, in my family babies are named for the virtues we value—or more often, named for ancestors who were named for those virtues. Your father, he married into the Durian family. How true a Durian is he? Dad is a distant cousin from a cadet branch of the family. The Valdurians have served as bravely and honorably as Mother’s line. The angelic figure shoots a piercing glance at Verdame Melandra. “WHO IS HE? HAS HE BEEN TESTED IN BATTLE?” He has not, holy one. Will cannot tell if the reply is from the knight, or only within his head. The towering green warrior turns her gaze back to him. “WHO ARE YOU?” This time Will is unable to answer with words. His world shrinks down to burning green eyes lit by dim red coals, and the faint pressure of a leaf in his left hand. The leaf seems to move.
Slowly, the world returns. There is an intermittent buzzing; presumably the messenger—the angel—addressing the other squires and knights. When Will is fully aware of his surroundings again, the angel—for the first time—smiles gently, sadly, at the assembled squires. Then she is gone. The knights move around the fire to re-form the circle.
Verdame Akshago speaks: “Some of you now hold something that you did not a moment ago. But I will first address those who do not. She who speaks for Gaia asked if you have been tested in battle. For most of you, the answer was ‘no’. Do not be overly concerned; your time will come. And also, there is this: while battle reveals much of the heart, the Miracle of the Leaf reveals all of the heart. Timmuk, step forward.” If the tall boy—a year older than Will, more or less—is taken off-guard by the sudden command, he does not show it. He steps around the low embers and shows the Aesche Prior his leaf…except that it is no longer a leaf. It is thicker, heavier. It has been transformed into the first symbol of a knight of the Order, a token of the Order’s namesake stone, verdurine—a stone which only occurs when new green growth is instantly petrified by magic or miracle. Working quickly, Verdame Melandra weaves a skein of rawhide cords around the leaf token. Timmuk kneels, and she hangs it around his neck. “Arise, passed-squire Timmuk.” The same process is repeated with Gladys, a girl Will’s height and Timmuk’s age who excels all of the other squires with the bow.
“Will, step forward.” Will steps forward, and presents his leaf. It is mostly still a leaf. Its stalk and veins have changed to a grey stone very different from the verdurine of the previous two squires, while the flesh of the leaf is still plant matter. Verdame Akshago looks down, and a tiny lop-sided smile appears on her face. “Well, this is unusual. You must have been very close to passing in your first year. I haven’t seen this in a very long time.” She looks up at him, suddenly serious again. “Since I was fourteen, to be precise.” She waves him back to his place on the squire-side of the fire. The remaining squires come forward in turn. Some present a verdurine token, which their respective knight-guidants make into rawhide necklaces for them. The rest—including all of the fourteen-year- olds—present a simple ash leaf and are dismissed to their places. Do not be overly concerned, your time will come, Verdame Akshago had said. Will’s time comes two months later.
Proving Himself Against the Orrish
The Orrish came boiling up out of the caverns at dusk. How they timed it so precisely, no one knows. Usually they waited until full dark, not taking any chances with the Sun-Bane. This time, though, the sun was barely—barely—behind the hills before the Orrish were at the gates of Blarneytowne… and through them. Survivors brought word to the Verdurine motherhouse, but in the meantime the Orrish had sacked a second town and burned out every farm and village in sight. Reports had it at over three hundred raiders. While this was a tiny force compared to what the Orrish had brought in the past, it was over twice the number of fighting men and women in the motherhouse, from the knight-commander himself down to the newest squire-probationer. And, the motherhouse itself could not be abandoned; some must be left to hold the walls. Knight-Commander Billip wastes no time. “Brother Koron, I’m sending you with squire Gladys to Grandmother’s House. Baron Tolan couldn’t move fast enough even if I sent a full knight to summon him, and anyways I can’t spare one; Grandmother’s House is near enough and they have the bodies to be calling out the secular lords. Ojhan, I’m going to leave you with two knights, a quarter of the lay siblings and the younger half of the squires. Less and I might as well not leave you at all, and I can’t give you any more because I’m going to need everyone else when I find the Orrish. You should be able to hold the motherhouse unless they come at you with more than they’ve shown. Melandra, I hate to give all of your squires the tough jobs, but the other two will be with you. I’m sending you with Will and Timmuk ahead of the main force. Find the Orrish, find their hole, put me where I can cut them down or hold them
for the clean summer sun.” Billip stands barely four feet tall, but his hard smile as he says this would not be out of place on an Orrish headhunter.
Will and his companions find the trail in midafternoon. They stop in a clearing, and Melandra slowly shapes cloudy words in the sky. “Tracks, northeast to southwest, near Briarfeld. Hundreds. Day tops. Melandra.” Barely a minute later, more cloudy words form below them: “Received. Two hours behind you. Them or their hole. Billip.” Not that Verdame Melandra needs to be told her job again, but Darkness! They are all nervous. The
Orrish never raid in the late spring and early summer—the shortest nights of the year. Even when they cross the border and bring their masters’ eternal night with them, they march in the darkest months of the year. Something has changed. Will doesn’t know what, and if his knightly masters know, they are keeping it to themselves. “Timmuk, I am going to send you up-trail. I know you haven’t mastered the ritual of skywriting, but someone has to check that direction. You’ll probably find it leads to Blarneytown, or what’s left of it. Will, you and I will head down-trail. We may meet a lot of Orrish in a hurry—they like to re-use trails when they can to confuse trackers. Both of you, remember: getting word back to the commander is
more important than any small damage we can deal on our own.” Both of the boys nod solemnly, and steal a look at each other. They have never been friends, even after their fight—years ago now, Will realizes with surprise. “Good luck and good hunting, Timmuk.” Timmuk stares expressionlessly for a moment, then replies, “Gaia bless, Will. And if you can’t avoid them, then magic the hell out of them.” “Count on it.”
They grasp forearms as they have seen the adult warriors do, then Melandra says, “Move out.” Will and the knight travel southwest for more than an hour, as afternoon yellows into evening. Will is never sure, later, whether he smells the smoke or sees it first. He only knows that without a word between them, he and Verdame Melandra urgently kick their horses into a canter. They break clear of the trees into fields sprouting green, then top a rise overlooking ruin. Perhaps a mile and a half away are the remains of a town. The gates have been blasted down. The left leaf still hangs by the twisted remains of its lowest hinge, while the other has been hurled its own height into the town by the forces that tore it free. Smoke rises from at least a dozen fires still burning inside the walls. Figures move below, but too few. The Orrish have taken a grim harvest. “We went the wrong way.” Another person might have taken it as a personal criticism. Perhaps Melandra does, too, but aloud she only says, “Yes.”
They head out at right angles to the trail, already knowing what they will find but needing confirmation. Three minutes later, the knight skywrites, “Silvanton sacked. Reverse trail quarter-mile northwest. Doubling back northeast. Melandra.” She remounts and turns her horse without awaiting an answer. “No time. We ride!” The Orrish have fooled them. A force coming from the mother’s house would naturally cut the earlier trail first. Trying to follow the Orrish to ground, they instead rode further from the goal. But Timmuk had gone the right direction… and Will and Melandra are now more than two hours behind him. If the knight and squire move fast enough, though, they might—might—be in time to make a difference. Perhaps halfway back, Will sees new clouds through a break in the trees. “Received. Billip.” Nothing more. There’s nothing more to say. It is time for action. Both Orrish trails meander some where the trees are heavy, but neither comes within 300 yards of the other. Will and his knight-guidant split the difference between the two, keeping each trail in sight as often as possible in case one or the other turns away. They are riding faster than caution would demand, but there is still another hour or two of light. The trails pass through a narrow draw, for the first time overlapping. Timmuk would have seen the second trail here if not sooner, but there is still no sign of him.
They slow as they enter the gap, but not enough. Suddenly, Will’s horse is screaming and he is flying through the air. The ground rises up like a giant’s backhand of jagged rocks and knobby roots. As Will rolls to a halt, he can hear both horses screaming. The bloody rope that has tripped them and likely broken their forelegs is no longer raised, but under an east-facing ledge Will can make out shadowy figures: Orks, mere paces from the sun-dappled forest floor! The largest Ork cocks back his arm, then hurls something through the air. Will hears a pained grunt from Melandra sees her knocked to the ground with a long, thin spear standing out from her leg. The grunt turns into a scream, and he watches in disbelief as she slides in yard-long jerks towards the cave under the ledge. Suddenly everything is very clear for the young squire. While these Orks are incomparably more dangerous than the Vaes brothers, the way to deal with them is the same. Will starts up the hill towards the cave, hurling stones as fast as he can enchant them. One Ork falls, then another one. A crossbow bolt sticks in his shield, and he bats aside a harpoon. The Orrish have stopped trying to pull Melandra, and whatever she’s shouting now seems coherent, but Will has no attention to spare. He reaches into his pouch again, and finds it empty. Surely he can’t have thrown thirty magic stones already? But that is a distant thought. He enchants his club and steps into the gloom, laying out a third Ork with his first blow.
The Orrish have had enough. They try to pack into the narrow cave through which they climbed, but the quarters are too tight for their panicked rush. One is knocked reeling down the hill into the sunset. His despairing screams as he attempts ever more feebly to scramble back up to the darkness join the hellish cacophony of the horses, the knight, and the battle. Three Orks continue to face the young mystic, unwilling to turn their backs on his red club until the way is clear to flee. One scores a solid cut on Will’s arm above the shield. He heals himself with a roar and counters with three quick blows that leave another Ork at his feet. The other two back into the now-clear tunnel, and Will lets them go. He is more tired than he can remember ever being, though the fight couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes.
*-*- *-*- *-*- *-*- *
By the time Will makes his way back down the hill, Melandra has cut the harpoon free and healed the wound enough to stand on it. The thumb-thick rope attached to the harpoon is also cut—presumably that was done first. In the sky, giant purple letters stand against the setting sun.
“Ambush. Draw where trails join. Will has turned it. Melandra.” “Rendezvous within quarter-hour. Hold what you’ve got. Billip.” Unexpectedly, a third message appears in the southeast: “Orrish in cellars. Squires clear under Volkov. Darupet bless. Ojhan.”
*-*- *-*- *-*- *-*- *
As dusk settles deeper over the land, they catch up to Timmuk outside Blarneytown. Timmuk sensibly went around the draw, figuring it to be a likely place for an ambush. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that an Orrish ambush by daylight was an odd thing to be concerned for—and events have proved him correct. “They moved out as soon as the sun was out of sight. West or a bit north. Tolankeep seems like the likeliest thing in that direction, though how they expect to take it in a single night I don’t know.”
As they set off down the trail behind the Orrish raiders, Will tells his fellow squire about the blasted gates of Silvanton, and the Orrish in the cellars of the mother’s house. “Wonder how they managed that last one. Chained Ducateon, do you think? I thought Orrish weren’t fond of digging. Or work. But yeah, with tricks like those they just might be able to match Baron Tolan.” The ground is clearer here. Fields stretch for several miles around Baron Tolan’s castle, dotted with small woodlots. At first Will wonders if they are going to catch up to the raiders, until he sees the first fires. Oh yes, if they stop to burn every little hamlet. The Verdurines run down the Orks as they are putting the third tiny village to the torch. They announce their arrival with arrows, bolts, and magical stones. A one-sided night ambush is even more demoralizing to creatures who are accustomed to being able to see their enemies in the darkness; but the night vision of the fire-lit Orrish is of no use for seeing attackers forty, fifty, sixty yards away. It is a rout. Many of the knights can produce magical light, and with their aid the Order presses its advantage ruthlessly. The knights, lay siblings, and squires harry the Orks and their smaller kin all the way back to Blarneytown, turning rout to massacre. Many of the Orks and a few of the lesser Orrish escape down the tunnels they first attacked through—there are simply too many of them not to. But many, perhaps half of the total, do not escape. By midnight, the Blarneytown raids are over. Will is among those who stay to help seal the tunnels (which appear to have been dug with hand tools and stone magic, not captive Ducateons). Knight-Commander Billip retakes the mother’s house with little fuss. Grensieur Ojhan did not survive, but Verdame Zuella is barricaded in a (non-flammable) barracks-hall with the surviving lay warriors. The following year, Will is Tested again, and this time emerges with a verdurine leaf token. Two years later, he is awarded the pale green belt of a full knight of the Verdurine Order, and sent on his Time of Traveling as a knight-sabbatic.
The Knight Sabbatic
Will became part of an entourage to Nicadu Offmier – Sira Nicadu was a great merchant that brought goods out of Ados. It was a chance to go west and see the many cultures of the Pale Plains. He was a friend to the order – constantly having supplied the area even when times were dangerous. Will was young and idealistic, which made him natural prey in the Merchant Cities of the South. He was caught up in a scandal of a local lady and a love affair. Will was on the losing side of a pitched battle and captured in the fields outside of Poelitz. Although slavery is illegal by the High King’s decree, indentured debt is not. Will’s debt was bought by the Black Hound mercenary company; his weapons, his armor, and his equipment given to him by his house and order made for a large sum. Two years was the service to be given. From the Merchant Cities, the Black Hounds took him to occupied Tarmysia – their contract was under the Empire of Gwinn. Will faught against the Dunstrand regular forces and their elite forces – The Gallants of Bar-Innis. Banneren and an elite fighting force, they had earned titles (viscount) and land. They had been fighting a long time and their regular recruiting grounds were dried up. Lots of reasons could be given, but the Black Hound were brought down from Gillman pass to fight the Gallants when Dunstrand tried to invade southern Tarmysia – allied with Umbak. Then the Black Hounds hunkered in for a year. It was only 2 more weeks before his time of service was up and he could depart, when the forces of Dunstrand took the top of Gillman pass and overran their position. Given the option of fighting the Lich Lords, waiting in a prison camp for a decade, or serving with their one time enemies, The Gallants, Will made the choice to serve the Duke of Dunstrand. Service to the gwinnish was repulsive… and the Gallatns were said to be supporters of the old ways – of the Green Church and the Wyld faith. The Oath binds him to a different lord but with a similar cause.
Oh, and one more thing troubles young Grensieur Will in his contemplative moments: whichever of the Orrish or their allies it was, that was capable of blasting down town gates—that one was never found.