I wrote this with the full intention of submitting it to the Red House Writing Competition 2012. Unfortunately, I failed to notice the fact that there was a 1,000 word limit, so couldn't actually submit it in the end. But never mind. Read and enjoy!
Tell Me a Tale of Adventure.
"Tell me a tale of your home, its fearless warriors, the glory its people claimed in battle,"
"You misunderstand, mighty Emperor. My people were not warriors. They were farmers, crop merchants. The cattle we bred were known as the finest in the South. As a law, though it was written in no ledger, the men of my clan were pledged never to harm another, no matter his heritage. We were a peaceful people, resolved to settle our differences with words, not swords."
"How then," he countered, voice thick with ever-present pompous arrogance, "did they become so great? You claim your people to be known and feared throughout the country. 'All of Britannia held them in the highest regard' you said. How could this be without great armies and able warriors? Without such, your clan would have been conquered long ago."
She suppressed and contained the bubble of laughter that surfaced at his words. He, leader of the greatest empire the world had ever known, an empire forged on naught more than brute force and an iron-fisted discipline, could never perceive that a clan could survive without these qualities. Her knowledge made his speech ignorant and, considering the tone in which he uttered it, rather amusing.
"My people were not feared, Emperor. Rather, they were respected, honored, maybe even loved. Many surrounding clans pledged their allegiance to us, for we would often be called upon to solve disputes throughout the land and this was the only way in which they could repay us. To declare a state of war on the Cascillion Clan was to declare war upon every clan of the South-West, of which numbers were great and warriors capable. We had everything we could require, but we were never feared."
The Emperor sighed, deep in thought, his powerful shoulders rising and falling. He had his back to her, leaning against the great Oak desk that had stood in the office since the great Roman Empire had encountered the tree in the land of her people. His booted feet stretched across the intricately carved chest beneath the window; a window which overlooked the entire southern half of Rome and the farmland beyond. The sun illuminated the white linen curtains swaying in the light breeze, and sent a shaft of soft light across the floor.
Her azure gaze bored into the back of his head, and briefly she imagined what it would look like aflame with an arrow protruding from it. It brought a smile to her lips, and she became thankful that he could not see her.
"Very well then. Tell me a tale of a dispute your clan once settled, one that earned glory for all its future generations to come."
She was silent a moment, but she had no reason for hesitation. She had known exactly what she would tell him since the beginning. It was a tale he would already know; he had only now to hear the other side.
"This is a tale every child of Cascillion is familiar with, and they are all under instruction to tell it to their children, who will tell theirs after them."
The golden sun peeked out from behind the Eastern hillock and flooded Cascillion valley with its deep radiance, bringing the new day to a beginning. With its arrival, the clanspeople began to emerge from their homes and undertake the daily routine.
Arianna Cascillion stood outside the small wooden house she had claimed as her own and, as she did every morning, watched the people go about their daily chores. Her house stood a little way up a slope beneath the Northern Watchtower, and standing on the front veranda gave her a perfect view of the whole valley. It was, on a clear Midsummer Day such as this, a beautiful sight.
Looking down she glimpsed an ageing man ascending the steps up the side of the slope, and a smile formed on her lips. Moments later, her father, the thirty-eighth Lord Cascillion, stepped onto the veranda.
"Today is a good day," he declared, taking a deep breath of the fresh morning air. He put an arm around his daughter's shoulders and followed her gaze across the valley, turning as she did to see the sun ignite the Western Ocean, creating glittering golden lights that danced across the waters.
"Today is a very good day," he murmured, more to himself than anyone else.
"Lord Cascillion!" A watchman stationed on the North Tower provided the interruption, and Arianna's father turned. "Someone approaches from the East, my Lord. He rides hard and fast, and his uniform is that of the Lambert clan. He looks as though he has not stopped to rest since departing his hall."
Lord Cascillion gave no reply but hurried up the spiral stairs of the North Tower. Arianna followed as swiftly as her skirts would allow, and arrived at the lookout platform in time to see her father peering through the watchman's spyglass.
"I know his face," her father said, his voice heavy with concern. "He is Lord Lambert's favoured and most trusted messenger. He would not have been sent so far if not for good reason. Harold, send a half-dozen of our fastest riders to meet him, and escort him to my hall as soon as he arrives." the watchman Harold nodded once and hurried down the stairs.
"The Lambert clan reside on the Eastern coast. Lord Lambert has not visited us for many summers due to the distance and his line have not sought our help for near five generations," Arianna thought aloud as she watched the rapid approach of the Lambert rider.
"Then their need must be dire," her father reported. His tone was sombre, and he followed the approaching messenger with a grave face. "Come my daughter, let us greet our guest."
Lord Cascillion lead the way down the spiral stairs, and the two of them proceeded through the village at a pace that would not cause unnecessary alarm. There was no need for caution, however. The events were already making themselves known to the clanspeople; whispers flew across the main street and darted between the lips of gossiping women. Children waited, big-eyed, in doorways, eager to see the newcomer but too afraid to venture further than the comfort of their homes. An air of tension that had not been felt in Cascillion valley for many years now hung in the air. None but the very old could remember the last time a Lord Cascillion's wisdom had been called upon and the whole of the South had been at peace for almost an entire generation. The possibility of this changing was becoming increasingly likely to all aware of the circumstances.
The sound of approaching hooves became louder, and without warning seven horseback riders broke into the village, coming to a halt with alarming haste. The centremost rider dismounted before his horse had even stopped, handing the reins to another and approaching Lord Cascillion.
"My Lord, I come from the hall of Lord Lambert with a message that you must hear at once." His face was haggard, and Arianna could see that the watchman Harold had been right; he had not had rest since beginning his journey.
"Inside. I will hear everything, but not in the open where anyone could overhear and spread unwarranted panic." Cascillion lead the Lambert messenger inside the grand building at the foot of the valley, Cascillion Hall, and closed the door behind them with a resolute boom. No sooner had they entered, the Lambert messenger sank into the nearest chair and seemed to fall asleep instantly.
"Arianna, fetch water for our guest at once," Cascillion commanded. Although unwilling to miss the beginning of the story, Arianna nodded once and made her way through the Hall and to the well behind the main building. She had not been gone two minutes, but the tale had already been told by the time she returned.
"Ships from the East..." Lord Cascillion leant against the great Oak table in the centre of the room, one hand toying with the short grey beard that covered his chin. "You say Lord Lambert did not hesitate before commanding my presence. Can you explain why?"
The Lambert messenger drained the goblet of water Arianna offered in two swift gulps before responding. "He did not say, but I can only assume he had seen them before. They had a very distinct pattern on the sails, easily recognisable even through a thick veil of time. The only conceivable reason I can consider is that he was aware of the owner, and saw them as a threat to the clan."
Again there was a pause as Cascillion thought, eyes boring a hole in the wooden floor with the intensity of their gaze. "The sails. Did they have four symbols upon them, surrounded by leaves?"
"How did you know?"
"Your master is not the only one who has seen those ships before. He was right to call upon my guidance. Arianna, tell Harold and his brother Norbert to meet me in the stable house immediately. We ride to Lambert as soon as the horses are ready."
"I would come with you, Father," Arianna pleaded. She was destined to claim the title of Lady Cascillion and one day would inherit her father's mantle. She wanted as much experience as possible first.
"The ride will be treacherous, my daughter. I would rather you remained here."
"I am an experienced rider, Father; I can keep pace with you easily."
With a sigh, Cascillion gave in. "Very well. The stable house. Go."
In ten minutes Arianna, clad in her riding trousers and carrying provisions, arrived in the stables. Her horse was already waiting for her, and she had only to load the food parcels into her saddlebags and the small party were set to depart.
The ride across the country took them four days. They slept in the saddle and were forced to swap horses three times along the journey for efficiency, and they arrived in Lambert's territory with the morning sun of the fifth day. The sight they encountered sent a chilling silence through the party, broken only by the sounds from the scene before them. They had reached the summit of one of the many hills surrounding the Lambert clan, and now looked down upon what had previously been one of the most prosperous communities of the East. An armada of ships, greater in size than many Cascillion houses lined Lambert beach. Tents, scarlet in the morning sun, replaced wooden huts, and countless corpses cast eerie shadows across the ground. As they watched, soldiers hauled these corpses into piles around the edge of the village and, when they had reached suitable heights, set them alight.
"Arianna," Cascillion did not turn and his gaze remained fixed upon the scene below. "Return home. Gather the villagers and head north. Warn as many clan leaders as you pass that the Romans have arrived at Lambert. Seek out the Celts of the Highlands. Request shelter behind their walls. If anyone can defend against these abominations, the Celts will survive."
"But father, the Celts are as likely to turn us away or kill us themselves as these."
"Do not argue, Arianna, go! Harold, accompany her. Do not stop. Return to the valley with the utmost haste. Go!"
"It took Arianna and Harold another three days to return, as they switched horses often and there were only two of them. Arianna did as her father instructed; she reached the village and escorted the people north. She sent five messengers ahead of her, each taking separate roads and spreading her father's warning as they went."
"What happened to the clan?" The Emperor's voice sounded hollow, lacking its self-assurance and confidence. It gave her a sense of satisfaction that she found pleasing. She wondered why he was asking; he already knew the Cascillion clan's fate.
"They followed the coast and reached the river Mersey. The Romans caught up with them there, while they were coordinating the crossing. Many were taken as slaves. The rest were slaughtered."
"And the messengers Arianna sent ahead? What of them?"
"I do not know. They may have reached the Celts and warned the rest of the country, or they may not. There is no way to be sure."
There was a silence, during which the only movement was that of the Emperor placing the now empty goblet of wine he had been holding on his desk. As was her duty, or so she had been told, she approached and picked it up; she would take it back to the kitchens as soon as their conversation was over. She wouldn't usually go so out of her way for him, but she needed an excuse to see his face. His eyes, notorious for being black as pitch but were in truth an intense dark brown, stared sightlessly into the distance, watching nothing but the events she had just described. Her words had certainly affected him, probably a lot more than she had intended. She wondered why. A man such as he did not feel guilt for his actions.
"I know," he murmured. At first she thought she had imagined it but he continued. "I know what happened to the messengers." He took a deep breath and exhaled it slow and loud, as if he were preparing to deliver news of a great tragedy. Her heart quickened. He had information, and it was information he feared she would not like.
"One was caught just north of the river Mersey, along with the clan that resided thence. Two more were encountered in the midlands, not together but within an easy day's ride of one another. The fourth trapped himself in a valley in the foothills of the Celtic border. The fifth was never found, and it was assumed that all had been captured."
He spoke slowly and with great care, choosing words, she noticed, that did not tie him personally to the events. A glimmer of hope re-kindled itself inside her; if just one of her messengers reached the Celts, there was yet hope for the defeat of Rome.
"They carried their message well. Each legion met greater opposition the further north they progressed. The Celts proved… Uncooperative. No matter what you claim Arianna, you were loved by your people."
He glanced up then, and for a moment their eyes locked. His seemed full of genuine remorse, and she was forced to avert her gaze from the intensity of his in order to conceal her emotions from him.
"One does not need to be loved by one's subjects, Emperor," she said softly. "If you earn their respect that is all you require. With respect, alongside love or hate, comes loyalty, or so my father's wisdom once taught."
She did not feel capable of continuing the conversation any longer, so without waiting for his reply and without another word from either of them, Arianna slipped out of the office.