7 Nov 2011

Lodoss Novel “Setting Sail”

Author: Cool Snoops | Filed under: Record of Lodoss War

Setting Sail
After the fall of Marmo, Ashram the black knight and Pirotess, his devoted aide de camp and lover, are planning to lead their people to a better place…
(incomplete)

The northern sky glowed like a red ember, reflecting the fire that consumed the Forest of Darkness. Smoke billowed up, spreading thickly across the sky like thunderclouds. Perhaps the sky would be hidden behind it. If so, it would be the gods’ mercy, Pirotess thought. Or the evil gods’ mood, perhaps.

In feeling that their native forest was precious the dark elves, evil spirits, were no different to the high elves. In that they were all fairies of the forests that were given life in ancient times, they were the same. The only difference was that, there being both light properties and secret dark properties inside the forest trees, the dark elves had taken over the dark properties by force. That was pillage, parasitism.

That dark elves wanted to control other races was perhaps their fundamental nature as fairies. The forest did not only give its blessings, but also took, to an extent that no one knew…

Pirotess was, at present, on a boat floating in harbor. Already she had gone up on deck many times and turned her gaze towards the highway stretching north from the port. The silver-white hair that hung around her dusky-colored cheeks and brow, dancing in the sea breeze, she harshly swatted aside, so as not to miss seeing the shape of someone coming along the highway.

At the highway’s other end was Marmo’s imperial capital Persei, called Darktown. But now that capital would be overrun by the self-styled righteous military force that had come from the main island of Lodoss.

The Forest of Darkness, sacred place of the spirits and magical beasts, was wrapped in flames; the great temple of the dark god Falaris, he whose doctrine was absolute freedom, looked to have fallen to the enemy. Some time ago, the evil dragon Narse who guarded the temple had been seen flying away into the eastern sky.

Marmo, the feared Dark Island, was conquered. The empire that had aspired to unite Lodoss was perished and gone. And now the empire’s surviving people were preparing to leave by boat and escape from the island with the aim of finding a new land.

This was the will of a certain man. Known as the Black General, his name was Ashram. He was the one person to whom Pirotess had vowed loyalty. And, in more than a hundred years of life, he was the first man to whom she had given her love.

The fleet was scheduled to depart when Ashram returned. However, his figure had not yet appeared. Only just then, Pirotess noticed a bright-red sunburned man who had already come close to her. She pulled her drifting mind back to reality. The man was Dorett, the captain of the fleet of privateer ships. For half the time, this fleet attacked foreign merchant ships, wrecking them on the coasts. In wartime, as the empire’s navy, they transported soldiers and equipment and engaged foreign warships in battle. Putting it simply, they were pirates, directly managed by the empire.

“Is all still ready for our departure?” Pirotess asked the captain, suppressing her inward agitation. That he and his men had been laboring for weeks almost without sleep or rest, she knew. The question had a purpose besides acknowledging this. By the condition of the northern sky, whenever the enemy attacked now, it would not be a surprise.

“Even if we’d gotten ready years ago, this is a daft decision! If we go to sea in a fleet like his one, we’re going to die!” His salt-burned face turning purple, Dorett shouted.

“We will certainly die if we stay on this island,” Pirotess replied with deliberate coolness. “You have lives which are exhausted in a few decades at best. To throw them away here would be regrettable.”

“Whatever your lifespan, no one bloody wants to die. The food and drinking water’s all loaded. Sailors have been assigned to each ship. They’re all seasoned and capable crew.”

“If so, you should have said it at the start,” Pirotess spoke caustically, then rewarded the captain with a smile. That this would work like a forest dryad’s charm spell, she knew very well of course. For a dark elf woman she was well-endowed, and she had equal ability to fascinate human men.

“We’ll leave as soon as he comes back.” With a bewildered look coming over his face, Dorett turned his back to Pirotess. Then he walked away quickly in the direction of the ship’s stern. He was a clod of a man who desired nothing but gold and women, and after that liquor, but he got the necessary things done.

“And this time too, we rely on him…” Pirotess spoke to herself.

The people of the dark island had probably never before banded together to this extent. Even when Emperor Beld was alive and they were subordinate to his influence, they had carried on secret feuds.

Now, however, Lusev the prince of the wicked spirits was burned to ash along with his dark forest. The church of the evil god had crumbled, the high priest Shoedel likely gone to his god’s side. The chief court wizard Wagnard too, having entrusted his subordinate wizards to Ashram, had disappeared somewhere.

Seeking not easy death but difficult life, the people of the Marmo empire, all of them, waited for the Black General Ashram’s return and orders.

But the general had still not appeared.

For the sake of buying enough time for the preparations for escape to be made, Ashram was leading the elite of the dark knights in battle at the northern port of Salbad, the Shadow City.

In the terrible fighting in Salbad about half the knights had met brave deaths on the battlefield; but by this sacrifice the preparations for escape to be made, The surviving knights had arrived at the harbor on the previous day. Only one, only Ashram, hadn’t come. According to his second in command Hicks, he had stopped off in the capital Persei to pay his last respects to the throne.

However, that throne no longer had an incumbent. Pirotess was aware of feeling a complicated mix of irritation and jealousy.

When all was said and done, there was no escape from the influence of Beld, the empire’s supremely great founder. It was so even for such a hero as Ashram. He was unable to surpass Beld’s renown. Perhaps this was because he was convinced that he couldn’t surpass his own limits. Pirotess thought of this impatiently. There was no need to outdo the dead. No one could overcome a hero who had passed into the realm of legend. If Ashram had only recognized that, perhaps he wouldn’t have been facing defeat today.

After Beld died without leaving a successor to his empire, four powerful people resurrected the council in Darktown. It was the same system of rule that Marmo had been under before Beld unified the island and declared himself Emperor. As a result of this change the Marmo army had been weakened considerably at its highest level. If the whole army had been able to move with one will, the outcome of the war might well have been different. But that was in the past now. The ocean trek ahead would be harsher than the past battle, beyond doubt. For there to be a chance of completing it safely, a strong leader was needed. Besides Ashram, there was no one who could shoulder that role.

With a feeling as though she was praying, Pirotess again turned her eyes towards the highway. The sun had already gone down in the west. It was getting dark. Only the northern sky continued to glow red like a sunset. This time, some human figures came into sight on the road. There looked to be three people. One was seated on a horse. A second man had hold of the horse’s bridle. The third figure looked like a child.

“Ashram?” Pirotess strained her eyes. Dark elves had better vision than humans, and as a shaman her eyes were able to capture light that an ordinary person’s couldn’t, making her night vision hardly inferior to her day vision. Of the approaching trio, she was sure the man on the horse was Ashram. The uneasiness in her heart vanished like mist clearing.

Compared with the fact that Ashram had arrived back safely, the matter of who the other two were was not greatly important.

Pirotess let a crewman know that Ashram had returned, and ordered a small boat to be sent out to meet him. The fleet could set sail before the final fall of night.

“Lord Ashram!” His face beaming, the man shouted out the news while running towards the stern after Dorett. In answer to his shouts, the other sailors came hurrying up on deck. To get a glimpse of their returned leader they gathered on the side of the ship where Pirotess was. The change in the ship’s center of gravity was enough to make it lean.

“Get back to your bloody posts!” Captain Dorett’s roar came from the stern.

After letting a boat over the side of the ship, the sailors jumped one after the other into the water and climbed on board it.

“Idiots! If you all get in there won’t be room for Lord Ashram to sit down!” Dorett’s voice thundered again.

“We’ll swim on the way back,” someone retorted.

Pirotess had thought she would go out to meet Ashram too, but by now it was too late for her to try to get in the little boat. She would just have to wait for him to come on board the ship. With a sardonic smile on her lips, Pirotess looked along the highway again.

In that instant her look froze.

Coming up behind Ashram, the figures of about twenty mounted knights had appeared. All of them were encased in white suits of armor. Were they Holy Knights? Pirotess tensed.

Whether they were the only ones in pursuit, or whether more were coming behind them, she couldn’t judge. But at least those twenty were going to catch up to Ashram ahead of the boat. Looking down, she saw that almost none of the sailors in the boat were carrying weapons. Furthermore, they didn’t seem aware of the change in circumstances.

“Undine, spirit of water…” Chanting words in a strange, echoing speech that was no common language of either humans or elves on Lodoss, Pirotess jumped over the rope that was attached for a safety handhold along the ship’s side.

Flying in a parabola through the air, Pirotess jumped overboard, down to the sea, and landed on it. The fluid element behaved like solid ground under her feet; the spell she had cast enabled her to walk on the surface of the water. With the sea lying gently in the evening calm, Pirotess was able to run at full speed.

The agile dark elf overtook the little boat in short order and swiftly arrived on shore at the quay. Passing by sparse human dwellings, she ran towards Ashram. As swift was she was, the battle would probably still start before she reached him. He wouldn’t be easily defeated; she was certain of that. But the number of enemies was large, and they were Holy Knights of Valis. They were different from the ordinary rank-and-file soldiers and monsters. To fight a large number of them, without magic, was difficult.

While she ran, Pirotess focused her will so that she could protect the Black General with her shaman magic. With magical back-up, warriors could increase their fighting power many times over.

Beyond the port, the highway sloped slightly uphill. At the top of the hill, Ashram and the Holy Knights were facing off. The knights were moving to surround Ashram and his two companions. From that position they could attack any time. Ashram hadn’t drawn his sword yet. He fixed a scowl on one of the Holy Knights.

“Lord Ashram!” Pirotess yelled at the top of her voice. She was still a fair distance away, but some of the knights heard her and turned their heads. However, none moved their horses in her direction. Surrounding Ashram, they stayed still, as though they were under a spell.

Pirotess covered the last distance in a breath. She stopped twenty paces away from the Holy Knights. She crossed her arms in front of her in the pose she always adopted when readying to cast a spell.

“Well met. Good work,” Ashram spoke from atop his horse. Seemingly unconcerned about the Holy Knights, he moved forward.

The knights tightened their circle around him.

“Welcome, your safe return…” Pirotess’s voice came out hoarsely. She felt a choking pressure inside her chest. She desperately tried to force back the tears that were threatening to flow. She didn’t want to behave like an ordinary girl; and Ashram wouldn’t want her to either.

“Who are these people?” Pirotess wasn’t referring to the Holy Knights, but to the two strangers with Ashram.

“My followers, apparently. Not that I wished them to come.”

“Followers?” Pirotess surveyed the pair again. Surprisingly, the one that looked like a child was actually one of the plains fairies known as grassrunners. These fairies weren’t native to Lodoss, so this one was probably a traveler from the northern continent. Surrounded by the Holy Knights, he didn’t look the slightest bit afraid, but was displaying a sunny smile. He had a short sword at his hip, and inside his jacket there would be several concealed daggers. His kind were born hunters and master thieves. Even if the knights seriously attacked him, he thought he wouldn’t get a scratch, was the impression the little sprite gave off.

The other man looked like a priest of the war god Myrii. Over a chainmail shirt he was clad in a robe stitched with the god’s emblem. He was a middle-aged man with an imposing frame. With a warhammer held in one hand he stood silently, directing a coercive force at the circle of Holy Knights.

“Are the preparations for our departure complete?” Ashram asked, still showing no concern about the knights surrounding him.

He doesn’t need anyone’s help here, Pirotess thought. If there were twice as many enemies, he would still cut them down.

“One thing aside,” she answered, inclining her head slightly.

“My thanks for your efforts.”

“Please, thank Captain Dorett and his men instead. They worked without rest.”

While Ashram and Pirotess were having their short conversation, the Holy Knights seemed to come back to themselves. They drew their circle a little tighter and brought their swords and shields to bear.

“Black General, you won’t escape!” one of them shouted.

“Did the king of Valis send you after me?” Ashram asked, glaring at the man.

“The king said not to pursue you. But we don’t intend to let you go. By striving against the people of Valis, you committed a crime worth a punishment of ten thousand deaths!”

“You disobey your king’s orders, but still call yourself Holy Knights?” The priest of Myrii spoke in a severe tone. “Committing massacre after a war is over is not the will of the gods!”

“To bring down the wicked is the justice of Falis!” the youngest knight retorted, answering back to the force of the priest’s words.

“Do all of your rabble have a personal grudge against me?” Ashram spoke coldly, directing the question to the young knight.

“We are Holy Knights! We don’t fight for such reasons,” the youth answered hotly.

“Then what is your reason?” Ashram asked once more.

“We don’t need a reason for disobeying the king. We seek to uphold almighty Falis’ justice, and therefore seek vengeance on you. Not as Holy Knights, but as Free Knights!”

“Free Knights?” Ashram’s brow rose a little at the young knight’s reply. “You sorry lot call yourselves Free Knights?” After these words, he gripped the hilt of the sword sheathed beside his saddle. It was a greatsword with a dark blade. Once it had been wielded by the Demon Lord who almost destroyed Lodoss. Beld took it, and Ashram inherited it from him.

The sword’s name was Soulcrusher. Once it had passed into another man’s hands, but of its own accord it had returned to Ashram. Rumor ran that the sword selected its master, and that it would not suffer to be wielded by one not of true heroic mettle. With his thumb Ashram released the fastening that held Soulcrusher in its sheath. The metal sheath fell to the ground with a resonant clang. Tension coursed through the Holy Knights.

“I know the true Free Knight. That man lives without the dogma of religion or the authority of kings. He is loyal only to his own heart. You, who cling to gods and depend on your country—you’ve got no business calling yourselves free knights! I was going to send you back alive. But I will not be merciful now.” Ashram raised his sword one-handed, faced the knights front-on and spurred his horse.

“Take him prisoner!” the oldest knight cried out. No doubt it was he who had ordered the pursuit, using the words about being Free Knights to bring the others with him.

“King of the Winds…” Pirotess started chanting a spell.

Ashram heard her. “Don’t interfere!” he shouted. His voice was stern, permitting no argument.

Pirotess obeyed. The war-priest, too, stopped chanting in the middle of the spell of holy magic he had begun. The grassrunner, who hadn’t shown any sign of wanting to take part in the battle, stood smiling, waiting to watch the spectacle of Ashram fighting the Holy Knights.

With the first swing of his sword Ashram cut down the knight in front of him. The man fell to the ground, blood spraying from the wound. Soulcrusher had sliced him open from shoulder to sternum.

The two men nearest him wielded their swords, but the distance was too far and their attacks missed.

Ashram’s black armor was magical, protecting its wearer as a ‘Shadow Body’ spell did. The Black Knight took out the two attacking him with one blow apiece, cutting one through the head and the other across the belly. Shedding brain matter and entrails, the two corpses fell forward in their saddles.

“Form squads!” yelled the man who looked to be the captain. In response to the order the young knight and two others lined their horses up, exchanged their swords for lances and with reckless ferocity charged at Ashram.

Ashram calmly waited, holding Soulcrusher low. The lances came in at him. As they were just on the verge of striking, he swung his sword up. The black blade shattered all three lances.

The four warhorses collided with each other. Two of the Holy Knights lost their balance and fell. With a swift movement of the reins Ashram made his horse step on the head of one of the fallen knights. The man’s skull broke with a sharp sound.

The other man got to his feet. This time the black horse kicked with a back leg, catching the man in the chest, sending him flying through the air to land on the ground with a crash. The man gave a feeble groan, then fainted in agony.

The young knight had somehow remained on his horse. Without a pause, and with faultless aim, Ashram drove Soulcrusher through the youth’s throat. The young knight fell to the ground, blood bubbling out of his mouth.

“What devilry is this…?” the captain of the Holy Knights murmured in a voice that trembled. Having lost six comrades in the space of a few moments, some of the knights started to run, screaming.

“Is that how free knights act?” Ashram yelled this taunt after the fleeing men.

With the circle of men surrounding Ashram broken, Pirotess approached him quickly. “Are you going to let those men escape?”

“Let them go,” Ashram said disinterestedly. Without haste, he turned to face the remaining ten knights.

“Lord Ashram!” Arrived at last, the sailors came running. It looked as if their blood was up and they were going to attack the knights. Some of them were strutting with daggers at the ready, but most were bare-handed; but they looked keen to fight if Ashram only gave the order. Ashram silently thrust his sword out. The sailors stopped in their tracks like well-drilled troops. Not one of them said a word.

“You look regretful,” Ashram spoke to the captain of the Holy Knights. “To die like this now, after winning the war! You should curse your own stupidity.”

“Wait!” The captain flung his sword away. “I surrender. If you wish, I’ll ransom myself.”

“Unfortunately, I won’t have time to collect it,” Ashram said with a cruel smile. “Since you believe in the god of light, you should go to heaven when you die. So you’ve got nothing at all to fear!” He raised Soulcrusher over his head and flew in among the Holy Knights. With the first stroke he cut in half the man who had begged for his life.

From then on it was a one-sided battle. The knights, seeing the truth, fought desperately; but they couldn’t inflict so much as a scratch on Ashram. When he had cut the last man’s head from his body, he wasn’t even out of breath.

Watching the way he fought, Pirotess held her breath. Of course she knew he was a superb swordsman, but she hadn’t imagined he could take down twenty knights in such fine style. It resembled Beld’s style of fighting.

“That was magnificent,” Pirotess told him. He had come back displaying an air as if nothing had happened. Strangely, he was wearing an uncomfortable expression.

“Wielding this demon sword is the last thing I want to do,” were his surprising words.

“Have you lost interest in battle?”

“No, not that! But I’ve been made to realize that there’s no meaning in victory won by a sword. I crossed swords with that man, and I understood.”

“The Free Knight Parn?” Pirotess guessed. It was the Holy Knights calling themselves Free Knights that had made Ashram angry. She had never seen the man called Parn, but Ashram had fought him during all the years the Marmo were stationed in Kanon. He was Ashram’s greatest enemy.

“He and I met in the royal castle. To test each other’s strength, we dueled. If we fought a hundred rounds, I won fifty-one, I would think. To know that was enough. To exchange lives in that place was stupid. We both put our swords away.”

“That was a strange thing for you to do, when that man had caused you so much trouble.”

“Indeed.” Ashram smiled bitterly. “But I’ve him to thank for showing me something. In the past I put everything into training with the sword, trying to surpass Emperor Beld. But even if I had defeated Beld, I wouldn’t have been greater than him.”

“I fear you concern yourself too much with his late majesty, General. The fact is, the dead can’t be overcome.” As Ashram had brought Beld’s name up, Pirotess finally spoke her mind.

“Wrong.” Ashram looked down at her. As ever, his expression revealed no hint of his mood. “They can be.”

“How?” Pirotess asked, not understanding his meaning.

“It’s simple. When you join the dead yourself the loud-mouthed bards give you value.” Ashram glanced around at the grassrunner, who was fossicking for valuables in the pockets of the dead Holy Knights.

Noticing the glance, the grassrunner gave a carefree smile. “These knights are rich, of course! In the new country, we’ll be using gold. I’ll be rich.”

“Pray that it’s so!” came Ashram’s reply. Respectfully obeying his hot glance, the following sailors turned around and followed him.

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