Chapter Four: Faceless

{Excerpt} 

This was a period of vigorous economic expansion. This expansion, in turn, played a major role in the many other transformations—social, political, and cultural—of the new age.

By 190 S.T, the population in most Kingdoms of Udoris had marginally increased after almost two centuries of peace. The bonds within the kingdoms tightened, and the ‘wheels of commerce’ spun ever faster.

 New commodities, many of them invented by members of the Sanctuary of Scrolls, enriched material life. Not only trade but also the production of goods increased as a result of new ways of organizing production.

Merchants accumulated and manipulated capital in an unprecedented volume. Most historians locate this period as the maturing, or at least the beginning, of Eastern capitalism. Capital assumed a major role not only in economic structuring but also in political relations. 

Culturally, new values—many of them associated with the end of the Great War and the Reformation—diffused through Udoris and changed how people acted and the perspectives by which they viewed themselves and the world.

But even as capitalism advanced from the east, the once-free peasants of Udoris slipped further into serfdom. The apparent prosperity of the century gave way in its middle and later periods to a “general crisis” in many Udorian regions.

Politically, the new centralized states insisted on new levels of cultural conformity on the part of their subjects, for example, Aries refused to tolerate the major religious bodies, namely the Band of the six divinities, The Wanderers of Radafis and the Creed of the Twins, and forbids the use of the common tongue, Morgar, by its dissidents, isolating itself from the rest of the world. Understandably, historians have had difficulty defining the exact origins of this complex century in the course of Udorian development.

The century’s economic expansion owed much to powerful changes that were already underway by the climax of the Great War. The later disasters radically transformed the structures of Udorian society—the ways by which it produced food and goods, distributed income, organized its society and viewed its dissidents

As a result of this revolution, organisations such as the Sanctuary of Scrolls and the Board of Commerce could thrive, leading to the development of game-changing elements. Important discoveries such as the newly invented Gunpowder siege weapons gave armies greater fighting power, hence their nations a greater sense of security.

By the end of the century, Udoris achieved what it never possessed nearly a century ago: an unprecedented technological leap, accompanied oddly by an extended period of peace and political stability.


Excerpt from Jonas Diane’s book on Udorian History- ‘Our Origins’

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{END}

Algrim,

Souville Province, Redwater county.

Duke Hera’s Keep.

15.13.223 S.T.

Nighttime.

Inside a chamber, dimly lit by candles, an averagely tall youth with a light moustache sat down at a table, writing a letter on a thin papyrus slip.

[Greetings father,] it said, [how goes the preparations for your return? Mother, sister and little Lan send their greetings. Regarding Greenfields. The annexation goes as planned. Unfortunately, it appears the von Greifenburgs refuse to vacate the fief. I still guarantee we can disseize the lands in a few days. Though it may cost us a few brave men, I have thrown a feast in their name, honouring their projected sacrifices, as per your command… At first light, we march. May the ancestors be with us all.]

Gilbert read through the message once before rolling it into a tiny scroll and sealing it with a similarly pint-sized wax stamp. 

Afterwards, he pulled out a pigeon from a cage by the side. Attaching the letter, he released the bird.

With that done, he stood up with a stretch, yawning tiredly.

Walking towards his bed, he crawled sluggishly unto it before turning to face the ceiling as he stifled yet another tired yawn.

Eyelids heavy, as he listened to the drunken laughter of his men in the building below, he turned to his side, dozing off into a light slumber.

A scream, feminine in nature, rang through the quiet fort.

Suddenly, there was a cacophony of noises, startling him from his slumber. The ding of blades on stone, the sound of broken furniture and the screams of men. Of pain. Of despair.

Gilbert rose from his bed with a start. Running to the window with a dash, he looked down at a sight that terrified him.

The empty stables, its equine occupants charging out of the fort via the open gates. The great hall at the right side of the main building. Ablaze. A fire growing in size lit it in a resplendent orange glow. 

A fight broke out at the barracks. Cloaked men wielding swords and bows surrounded the building, violently subduing any of the brave knights who attempted to fight back, as they threw lit torches on the thatch roof.

Archers and arbalists on the portcullis wreaked havoc on all that might approach, shooting down men as they tried to escape. Chaos ran amok, flames raging, churning black smog into the starry night sky. 

“W-we’re under attack,” Gilbert muttered, hyperventilating.

He paled, stumbling away from the window. Walking towards his table, he fumbled as he searched. There he found a papyrus slip and began writing, his hands shivering in fear.

He wrote as legibly his baser instincts to flee would allow.

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[Father. The fort has been attacked by unknown assailants. By the time this message reaches you, we might have already become captives. If not, we would flee and only return when we receive news of your return. Please return at first light upon receiving this message.] 

Hands trembling, he quickly heated a small pan of sealing wax before picking up the small quill sized stamp and dipping it into the molten substance.

In his hurry, the stamp fell out of his hand and rolled underneath the furniture. Panicking, he fell to his knees to retrieve the said stamp, knocking things astray on his way down, startling the remaining pigeons in the cage.

Several seconds later, he heard the sound of doors being forcibly opened down the hallway. He managed to pick the stamp but realized the wax had been rubbed off. Glancing around, he saw the heating pan on the floor with its contents spilt across the floor.

Gilbert limbs froze as he stared at the mess on the floor.

The door in the next room was forcibly opened and the vexed growls of men in the hallway were now very audible.

“He is not here!” one of the voices announced. Gilbert’s fears ballooned as his head jerked upwards towards his door, now kicked open at the hinges, several armed men barging into the room.

The room fell silent as Gilbert gazed at a cloaked figure in the group across from him, appearing to be the leader given how the group parted aside for the said man to walk in. 

He was clad in a suit of armour underneath his blood-soaked cloak, a bloody sword in his right hand and a lit torch in his left. His gaze travelled from the stamp that Gilbert held, to the note on the table, the two caged pigeons and the spilt wax on the floor before returning to appraise Gilbert’s expression.

They stared at each other for several moments before the cloaked figure finally spoke.

“It is over, Gilbert,” Lancelot said to the dumbfounded young man.

“You lost.”

Earlier…

In an empty clearing, in the woods just outside town.

Several men stood silently around a bonfire, a pile of unlit torches by one side. They were all armed. Either with swords, bows or crossbows and clad in breastplates underneath a shawl that cloaked the armour. 

All had tense expressions on their faces, emitting a solemn ambience.

Moments later, footsteps could be heard closing in. Tensing at the noise, some men subconsciously reached for their weapons, glaring.

“At ease,” Lancelot said with hands raised as he walked into the clearing causing the men to visibly relax.

“You are still alive? I thought you would be dead by now, given your newfound recklessness.” 

One man, much older than Lancelot, said with mock shock as he extended a salute, his right hand curled in a fist over his heart.

“Good to see you too, sir Carter,” the young viscount replied with a salute of his own, taking the jab in his stride. “Is everyone here?”

“Mostly,” Carter said. “Five more men stayed behind to ‘help manage’ the situation back at the fort.”

Lancelot sighed, nodding with understanding.

“And the patrols?”

“They have been dealt with.”

“I am of the assumption that everyone here is aware of the reason we are here,” he said, scanning the small crowd.

Upon receiving no objections, he nodded, pulling out a scroll from his belt and rolling it out on the floor beside the bonfire. The crackling flames illuminating the papyrus sheet.

“This,” Lancelot said, gesturing at the outlines drawn on the sheet of paper as the knights gathered, murmuring, around his crouched form, “is Redwater Keep…”

Twelve minutes later.

Lancelot approached the fort’s portcullis, followed by three cloaked figures as they prowled the shadows lingering by the tall wall. The five-meter tall gate was open but was guarded by two knights, leaning torpidly against the stone walls. Upon the wall were two patrols illuminated by the torches they held in their hands.

Glancing back at the men behind him, Lancelot gestured towards the patrols on the wall. Both of which were immediately shot through the head by the arbalists in the group. With the patrols overhead dead, Lancelot and the knight beside him stalked over towards the guards with predatory grace.

Sprinting forward, his palm clasped over one guard’s mouth, Lancelot watched the guard’s eye widen in surprise, then fear, as a long dagger was stabbed up the man’s throat into his skull. The corpse struggled for a few moments, a gurgling sound accompanied by spraying blood, before collapsing into Lancelot’s embrace.

The viscount dragged the body back into the shadows, alongside the other knight. They hid the body in the darkness before returning to the gate with the others. Peering into the large bailey Lancelot noted the coast was clear. Only five men were in sight, sitting far off in the distance around a bonfire, across a wooden fence that separated the inner and outer baileys. They appeared to be drunkenly discussing something.

The viscount ignored them, turning to look up at the wall. Three patrols to the right and one to the left. A glance was enough to determine that either side was well outside the effective range of their crossbows.

Hugging the walls, the four men walked in the direction of the three patrols and a wooden ladder hanging on the wall not far off. After two shots and a third later, all the patrols were dead, and all four knights began climbing up the wall.

Upon mounting the structure, they backtracked towards the portcullis. It appeared everything was going well until Lancelot noticed the fourth patrol walking back towards the corpse of one of his fellow patrolmen.

Panic flashed in Lancelot’s gaze as he and the knights rushed for the portcullis. But apparently, they were a step too late, the patrolman noticed the body, quickly backpedalling away from the corpse.

He turned to run, only to have a bolt pierce through his chest.

Lancelot glanced back at the knight who made the shot, giving a nod of approval before picking the two lit torches from the corpses on either side of the portcullis and dropping it down the wall. A signal.

A tense minute later, cloaked figures emerged from the darkness, like infernal beings, stalking towards the fort’s entrance.

Lancelot breathed a sigh of relief. Moments later, he headed back to the ladder, along with the knight, leaving the arbalists behind. On the ground, he watched his fellow soldiers pour into the fort stalking towards various structures, targets, with swords, crossbows, bows and unlit torches in hand. 

The viscount smiled slightly before drawing his sword and jogging towards the fort’s main building, the second knight in tow. Moving as stealthily as he could mid-run, he crossed the fence with a leap, avoiding the five men around the bonfire. Soon he could hear a few other footsteps converging, faint outlines appearing from his sides.

Merging with the newcomers that sulked out of the darkness, he charged the keep. The group entered the building ignoring the hallway as they ran up a flight of stairs before coming across a door. Kicking it open, they walked to another hallway faced with a woman, a maid perhaps, resting against the wall as a man leaning suggestively over her.

Without waiting for the man to react, Lancelot charged towards him.

He tried to shout before the viscount could reach him, but it was too late. With a clean swing, Lancelot beheaded the man. His blood splattering on the wall and the maid. Abruptly stunned out of her stupor, the young woman screamed, blood dripping down her face before they could knock her unconscious.

The door across the room opened, several men appeared peeking in. Without waiting for them to fully comprehend what was happening, Lancelot and the knights pounced on the drunk, disorientated men swinging their blades with reckless abandon.

Charging forward, Lancelot ducked under the wide swing at his face, leaning forward underneath the flailing appendage as his sword swung upwards. The offending arm was severed from its base, its owner screaming up a storm before Lancelot plunged his blade through his upper torso.

Quickly, they murdered them till the last man before moving on in the direction of the chambers, grabbing torches off the wall as they ran. According to popular design philosophies, the chambers of the lord of the keep and his family are usually located at the highest point of the building, which in this case should be the third floor.

Running up another flight of stairs, the knights arrived at yet another hallway. Opening the first door, they were met with an empty room. The next three were also empty, but the fourth one was occupied by five women and a female child. Lancelot didn’t know the first three, most probably maids given their attire, but he did recognise the others as core members of the Hera household. The margrave’s wife, daughter and lastborn.

“Someone should stay and watch them,” he said without pausing as he and the remaining knights quickly searched the remaining rooms, one of the knight’s willingly staying behind. 

After a hurried search, they kicked open one of the last rooms, there they came across their target. One Lancelot was familiar with.

The viscount glanced around at the mess in the room. A letter on the table, spilt wax and two startled birds.

He looked back at the young man’s face. Pale and frightened.

The two stood staring at each other for a few moments before Lancelot spoke, breaking the tense silence.

“It is over, Gilbert,” he said, gazing at the younger man.

“You lost.”

Morning the next day…

An inn.

Levi sat watching pillars of smog rise from the fort. The peasant street was a buzz of activity as both the commonfolk and merchants gathered to watch the spectacle.

Behind him, the door opened again. 

“Well?” he asked, seemingly aware who walked in.

“It’s done, my liege,” Lancelot said, falling on one knee. “By your command, we have taken Redwater. The fort, the main road and the harbour are under our control. No one leaves this town without your express order. 

“The rebellious Heras and their men have been detained. We are currently salvaging the situation. Searches have begun to uproot spies, and our knights are suppressing whatever voices of dissent that might emerge amongst the townsfolk.”

“Good,” Levi said blandly, his detached gaze expressing no visible emotions. A hint of boredom, perhaps?

After a few moments of sombre silence, he spoke again.

“Have sir Carter deal with what remains. You are sending me back. Now.”

“This room smells funny.”

{COS}

At the fringes of…

Windy fir woodlands

Aden rode his horse ahead. The princess and queen followed in a file behind him as the first two conversed, Irina listening in silence.

“…So, how did you eventually resolve your uncle’s betrayal?” Iris ventured.

“Oh. I avenged my father during the battle of the great rebellion. My uncle, foolish enough to join the rebellion, gave me the perfect excuse to execute him,” Aden said.

“I mounted his head on a pike in the family compound. Alongside his sons’, wife and loyal servants as well as their families. ‘Give no quarters to traitors,’ my father always said, something I did not fully understand until that day.” 

The calmness with which he spoke sent shivers down the princess’s spine, but the queen looked unfazed.

“Truly as ruthless as they say,” she muttered, looking away.

“What was that, princess?”

“Oh, nothing,” Iris said with a smile.

He squinted sideways at her before she cleverly changed the subject.

“But, did you truly slaughter a thousand men during that battle?” She asked with a mild cough.

“No, I did not, your highness. That was just the exaggerated babbling of some drunken knights. Probably half that number, from the scuffles and executions. Maybe a little less, give or take.” Aden replied, turning back to face the road ahead. 

“I am not so sure. I didn’t keep count, but I don’t believe I killed a thousand men.” 

Despite him denying it the thought of such a slaughter was still mind-numbing. 

She had always believed that the numbers were blown out of proportion by the commoners. But hearing the estimates from his own mouth, while it was significantly lesser than the rumours, was still terrifying nonetheless.

“Your sons must be brave, strong men then, given your exploits,” Iris said with a contemplative expression.

“Sean, probably. But Levi? Him?” Aden scoffed. 

“If one day, that she-male decides to leave his study on his own and experience life a little I would throw a feast. He usually spends all his time buried under a mountain of scrolls.”

“Really?..” Iris muttered, surprised. ‘The son of the legendary Dark Gryphon does not like to wield a blade? How unexpected.’

She never knew what Levi was like. After they were ‘exiled’ to guard the northern border, and she rarely had contact with the family. Except on rare occasions when they do visit the capital, that is.

Hearing he was not the valiant young man she thought him to be was strangely disappointing for some reason.

“That boy loves books just like his mother. It’s a pity they never truly met they would have been best of friends.” Aden said with forlornness.

The duke fell silent afterwards. This was probably a sensitive topic for him so Iris felt it would be wiser to keep quiet.

They continued the journey in silence afterwards, only the sound of birds and the rustling of rodents in the tree to keep them company.

Then suddenly, Aden stopped, reining back his horse with a raised fist signalling that they do the same.

After a few tense seconds, three armed men riding horses rode out of the shrubs garbed in brown cloaks. On their faces were oval white and black masks, spilt vertically, marked only by pill-shaped eyeholes. 

They had no emblems, no distinctive features aside from their masks. But their appearance caused Aden’s movements to stiffen and a wary expression to appear on his face.

“What do you want from us?” He asked, clearly recognising them as his hand tightened around his sword’s pommel. 

“Lord Aden,” one of the masked men said emotionlessly, “We beseech you and their majesties to please come with us.”

“And why should I do that?” Aden asked, raising a questioning brow. “Given you know who I am, did you assume anyone can just walk up to me, demanding we follow them and I would just comply?” 

“Lord Aden, we both know any thoughts of resistance at this point would be futile.” The man said unperturbed. “It would be in your best interest if you complied with our demands.” 

“Who wants to see me then?” Aden said with a sigh as he lifted his hand from his sword.

“You will find out soon enough.” The masked man replied emotionlessly

Iris reassessed the new arrivals upon witnessing Aden’s unusual reaction. Staring at their distinctive masks as she felt a sense of recognition.

Then it clicked

“Are they..?”

“Yes, princess,” the duke said with a resigned expression. “They are…”

“The Faceless.”


Disclosable Information:

  • Portcullis: is a heavy vertically-closing gate system typically found in medieval fortifications, consisting of a latticed grille made of wood, metal, or a combination of the two, which slides down grooves inset within each jamb of the gateway.
  • Bailey: is a courtyard within the castle and could contain a variety of buildings, including halls, kitchens, stores, stables, a chapel, barracks, and workshops.
  • A rough sketch of Hera’s fort



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