There aren't many old paladins.
Mostly we die. Spend year after year fighting everything from boggards to balors, and sooner or later one of them will take off your head. Or you succumb to rice-water fever while wandering in the bowels of a festering swamp. Or that smiling innkeeper with the dirty jokes turns out to be a secret cultist of Norgorber and slits your throat while you snore.
Few of us last ten years.
We don't all die on the battlefield, though. Sometimes it's quieter than that. Sometimes it's as simple as a loss of certainty.
Live in the world long enough, and you lose sight of the lines between good and evil. There aren't many true innocents out there. Maybe none. The maiden you save from a dragon grows into a mean old drunk who harangues her neighbors and kicks her dogs. The merchant you rescue from bandits turns out to be a cheat who's abandoned a dozen bastards around the Inner Sea.
And evil? Evil is no easier. Most criminals are only men, and stupid and frightened ones at that. But they're the easiest to punish; they've done wrong, and know it, and will pay the price.
The great evils trouble me more. Devils are evil. Diabolists, worse: they enable the fiends in our world. But I look at Cheliax—my poor, cursed homeland—and wonder whether grim peace is not, truly, better for the commoners than the civil war they had before, or the perpetually churning bloodshed in Galt. I hear of the Gray Corsairs' raids, and wonder whether it was worth the drowning of three galleys to strike a blow against slavers. The galley rowers were slaves too. Might they not have preferred to live, even if in chains?
I don't know. I haven't known for a long time.
I am not the first of my brethren to succumb to doubt. Ours is a high and narrow road. It's easy to falter, easy to fall. Almost impossible to climb back up.
Most never try.
Some surrender to the emptiness, living out their days in a slow gray mire. Some rebel, blaming the gods for their failures instead of themselves, and seek out new, malevolent masters.
A few join grand crusades, dying in a blaze of glory that might—might—be bright enough to blot out the stain of sin. That's always struck me as the best way. Find the easy choices, the clear lines. Die a hero. Let no one see the doubt.
I joined the grandest crusade of them all.
I went to the Worldwound.
∗ ∗ ∗
It was a snowy, bitter morn when I came to the gates of Kenabres. For the past ten days I had been studying the wardstones in the distance. They shadowed the lines of the road like an endless march of tombstones, commemorating the thousands who had died in Sarkoris and the thousands more that would die trying to save the rest of Avistan from that fate. Commemorating me, maybe.
Behind the wardstones the sky was smudged soot-black, stained by a fire that would roar unsated until it devoured the world. I never saw anything stirring in that poisoned air, but the red-bellied clouds were warning enough. Here lay the end of the world.
I did not come to Kenabres alone. On the road I had fallen in with other desperate, damned souls. Some wanted to confront death on their own terms; others wanted to live, at least for one more day, and had nowhere to do it but here.
During the journey I learned some of their names and some of their reasons. Jelani was a Thuvian sand-dancer who said she was dying of a wasting disease, though I saw no mark of it on her. Her parents lived in poverty on the far side of the Inner Sea, and even after she learned she was ill, she sent her earnings to them rather than paying a healer's fee. She had heard that Queen Galfrey offered free healing to anyone who joined the crusade, and had come in hopes that the rumor was true. Even if it wasn't, she said, better to die for an honorable cause than rot in a sickbed.
Most of my companions were less noble. Robbers, blasphemers, cattle thieves. The best of the lot was a mere debtor, cast in with the others when he borrowed to fuel his gambling and found the dice fickle as ever. All of them had been offered a choice between the gallows and the Worldwound. All had chosen to go north, though few had any training in arms and none had been properly schooled in sword or lance. Not one of them expected to leave Mendev alive.
These were my new comrades-in-arms. They made me glad I had already forsaken my oaths, and bitter that I had fallen so low. In my old life I would have sent them to the hangman or lopped their heads off myself. Now I could only hope they'd prove less dangerous at my back than the demons would be to my face.
The people of Mendev seemed nearly as suspicious of their saviors as I was. We spotted sentries ranging ahead of us a day's walk from the fortress town, and at the gates were greeted by bearded men in hard-used mail. Pots of acrid incense burned in the hollow merlons, draping the walls in curtains of ghostly white smoke. I smelled cedar and clove, and something else, unfamiliar, that tickled my nose and left me light-headed. Magic? If so, it was none I had seen before.
While archers kept arrows trained on us from the walls, a priest wearing Iomedae's radiant sword ordered us to doff our hoods, baring our faces to the cold. I turned my eyes away from the symbol of my old goddess, gritting my teeth at the touch of her magic outside me—always and forever, outside—but the priest didn't seem to notice. He chanted over us, beseeching Iomedae to show the truth of our natures, and only when he was satisfied that we were not demon-touched did the gates open at last.
"You must forgive us," he said. "We have hard troubles here."
No one answered him. What was there to say? We all knew of his nation's troubles. They were why we had come, willingly or not.
Inside the walls I saw more scars from Kenabres' long struggle. It would have been impossible to tell from walking through it that this town held the attackers, not the besieged. There were no cats in its streets, and the alleys held more rat-traps than rodents: the people had eaten their pets and were reduced to snaring vermin for food.
Peddlers crowded every corner, doing a brisk business in amulets and potions that promised protection from demons. I saw few women, and most of those were either painted bawds or Kellid giant-hunters, as wild and dangerous as their men. Mendev's wives and children had been sent to safety long ago. I wondered how many had become widows and orphans since then.
The gate guards shepherded us to a long, low building that served as a barracks. Banners and pennons from a hundred nations, city-states, and petty lordlings hung from its walls in a riot of dusty color. Among them hung stranger, grimmer trophies: weapons and battle-flags taken from vanquished foes in the Worldwound. I spotted a few skeletal claws and carapaces mounted in the corners. No skulls, though. Even dead—even taken as a prize of war—no one wanted those eyes on them as they slept.
A one-armed soldier seated at a battered desk took down our names and skills. His face had been dissolved by acid, perhaps in the same attack that took his arm; his cheeks hung down to his collar in ripples of shiny pink slag, and he looked half demon himself. Only one eye had been spared, but that eye narrowed sharply when I gave my name for his book.
"Ederras." He flicked a glance at my shield, then looked back at me, coolly appraising. "No title? No talents?"
I wondered if he recognized the golden wings painted on the oak, or if it was something else that had betrayed me. Perhaps I should have discarded the shield along with my blessed sword and the helm I was no longer worthy to wear... but the shield held one of the few enchantments that still worked for me, and I was loath to face the Worldwound with no magic.
"No title," I said. "No talents."
He didn't press me, moving on to the next man—Persil, a brewer exiled after his beer sickened and killed a dozen revelers at a Merrymead celebration. He swore it was an accident, and I believed him, but that hadn't saved the stammering youth from the local swordlord's justice.
None of the others admitted to much until the scarred soldier came to Jelani. She gave her name, acknowledged her lack of title, and smiled when he asked for her talents.
"Fire and sand," she said, lifting a hand. A tiny whirlwind spun, sparkling, over her palm. It seemed to be made up of gold motes rather than ordinary dust. Each speck glowed with its own fiery light. That light shone strangely on her face; at that moment she seemed inhuman, her pupils replaced by dark flame, her skin the glossy bronze of a Vudrani idol. She was not speaking loudly, yet her voice filled the barracks and quelled all other sound. "The heat of the desert wind. The blaze of the unfailing sun. Those are the powers I command, Mendevian. Will they do?"
The soldier shrugged with his good arm, drawing a stylized flame next to Jelani's name. "If not, you'll soon find out. Battle magic or builder's?"
Jelani closed her hand. The fire died; that strange light passed. She seemed a harmless girl again. "Battle."
The soldier smiled for the first time since he'd seen us. "Good." He fanned his quill over the ink to dry it, then closed his book. "You'll get your weapons now."
"I have weapons," one of the cattle-thieves protested. He was a shaggy, slope-browed brute of a man, and he carried an axe to match.
The one-armed soldier was unimpressed. "Are they blessed? Cold-forged? No? Not likely to give a demon any trouble, then. You can swing that axe until your beard goes gray, but if you're not wielding cold iron you won't leave a scratch on any of the beasts you're like to face here. The weapons we'll give you aren't fancy. No engravings, no gilt, no pretty little master's mark. But they can make those bastards bleed."
"You'll want holy water, too," said a Kellid woman. Triangles and knotted circles in red ochre covered her shoulders and collarbones, vanishing into the deerskin tunic she wore. "Not little vials like you carry in the south. Skins of it. Some of the demons have acid or stinking slime. Use the water to wash it off. Use the water to kill them, too, if you lose your sword. But don't waste it. Might need to drink it. Other water turns to poison near the Worldwound sometimes. Holy water's safer—as long as it lasts."
"We won't throw you out there like raw meat to wolves," the one-armed soldier said, reading the fear on the faces around him. "I won't lie: our need is desperate, and we're not training Andoren knights here. We don't have time to drill you for ten years in the training field. But we won't be sending you out against balors before you've learned to hold a sword, either. If you've never fought, we'll teach you. Until then, you'll tend animals, help the healers, brew whitesmoke for the pots. The work we do in town is as important as anything that happens on the wardstones.
"If you do know how to fight, however, we'll be sending you out once you're armed." He looked directly at me as he said it. I returned his gaze, impassive. "Our battle never ends. This is like no war you've ever fought."
"I've never fought in any war," Persil mumbled.
"You're in one now." The soldier grinned. "Welcome to the Worldwound."
Coming Next Week: Proof that the only thing more dangerous than a demon is a righteous man, in Chapter Two of "Certainty."
Liane Merciel is the author of The River Kings' Road: A Novel of Ithelas, available now from Gallery. For more information on her writing, visit lianemerciel.com.