The Unification

Chapter 1: The Unification

The morning light was just beginning to pour through the window, only to highlight the disarray lining every inch of Master Farrow’s office. Atop the desk adjacent to Martine were several stacks of books and scrolls. In one stack, Martine glanced a copy of “Grima: The Study and Practice” sitting atop several books of varying thickness and colors; some sprawled out on the table, others closed with a page holder sticking out past its hard-bound cover. Curiously, Martine wondered if the old man ever finished reading any of his books, or if he read a page at a time before carelessly tossing it onto a stack. Martine’s face must have changed as he had the sudden realization he hadn’t been listening to the old man, because Master Farrow abruptly stopped talking in his high, raspy voice and began to glare. “Perhaps a few hours of organizing my office will be adequate comeuppance after today’s lesson?” Master Farrow said curtly, phlegmatic stare piercing through the boy as he winced before hurriedly applying fresh ink to his quill. The old man harrumphed before continuing in a flat, expressionless tone, “Very well. In the Second and Third Age, before the Unification of the Kingdom, modern day Riftwood was segregated into City-States called Septs. The region was known to outsiders as the Woods of Rift, a name given to it due to the constant warring between the Septs….” Martine listened intently to the droning man before him.

Sweat beaded across the brow of Aldrich Heartsbane as he peered through the visor of his helm towards the Citadel. A tall Mann of early middle years, Aldrich was a hard sort. Under his helm lay a stony face, all sharp angles which gave away no emotion. Subordinates and enemy alike feared to be caught under the gaze of the man, now glaring at the building before him. The Citadel housed the members of the City Council; the pompous men and women whose arrogance and greed had forced his hand into action. Dismounting from his dapple mare, Aldrich motioned to Fjrey, the Captain of his honor guard to stay, sparing a glace for his Company Commanders who were ordering their subordinates to quarter their arms.

In the early years of his life, Aldrich, just like any other Askiri child, was boarded at an academy until he was old enough to begin his mandatory five-year commitment to military service for his Sept. His formative years spent learning philosophy, technology, battlefield tactics, and the history of Sept Askir; one of the City-States formed after the fracturing of a once-great empire now lost to the ages. At the end of his mandatory service, Aldrich had been summoned to join the Citadel as a member of the City Council; a role which he refused to instead take command of one of the five Legions of Askir. Aldrich had gained great repute as a battlefield commander during his tenure. Though all Askiri were renowned for their prowess on the battlefield, Aldrich’s aptitude for war stemmed from his ingenuity and creativity as a tactician.

Brow ever so slightly furrowed, it was important never to allow your opponents to read the emotion on your face, Aldrich made his way towards the dominating building. The fools, was all he thought as his long strides carried him closer towards the large, arched doorway before him. Bitterness clung to him, as he recalled the order to quit the field during his last campaign on Sept Malkar. Near victory, progress had been hard-won; the Malkari were a hard people, and of all of the other Septs formed during the fracture, the Malkar were the most despised among the Askiri. The Septs engaged each other in blood feuds often enough for paltry reasons, however all banded together when outsiders threatened the sovereignty of the Septs; all but the Malkari, as it was, who had refused to come to the aid of Askir during the outlanders’ most recent attempt at invading the Sept’s lands.

Pausing before the steps of the Citadel, Aldrich studied what lay before him. The archway leading to the Citadel stood a span taller than he at its highest point. The two colonnades supporting the archway, two spiraling pillars of ornate stonework, held a gilded brazier cradled in the hand of the statue of a robed woman. Much care was given to never allow the brazier to burn out, as it represented the heart of the Askiri people. Kneeling, Aldrich spoke the words of the ritual oath given those about to be inducted as a Council member. “In honor of the Ancestors, shall my actions be righteous. In the memory of the Blood, shall my course be unfaltering. Virtue shall be my spirit, honor my duty,” he recited the catechism in a morose, rueful tone before rising to his feet.

As he pushed open the towering, iron-wrought double doors before him, a shouting voice was heard from the inside, coming from a white-haired man standing atop the dais. “…should not be given quarter!” The voice cut off as the man noticed the heads of the Councilmembers within the tiered stands of the Citadel turn to face the newcomer.

Aldrich identified the short, plump old man who had been addressing the Council as Councilman Marius Lehr. Of all the self-righteous, corrupt members of the Council, Lehr had been the most notorious. Lehr stopped to gape openly at Aldrich; his sunken eyes surveying the General in open defiance. It was said that the old man had been a fury on the battlefield in his younger days, through time had a way of changing men. The plump man who now studied him was nothing more than a con artist. One who sold state secrets to the Malkari nobles to line his own pockets. The young officer Aldrich had captured in the final push through Malkari lands had made that more than clear when he began begging for his pitiful life. The wretched man on the dais, now sneering at Aldrich, waved a dismissive hand in his direction as he began to turn away, once again addressing the Council.

“Under Sept Law, a Legion under a banner of war may not enter the City under penalty of death to its commanding officers!”

Striding across the Citadel floor towards the dais, Aldrich removed his helmet and calmly made his way up to the dais.

“Do not compound your crimes, General,” the emphasis on the word was in sheer mock of the decision to remain in the military rather than take his place in the Council when summoned, “lest action be taken on your family as well.” The Councilman finished, contemptuous glare directed at Aldrich who now stood atop the dais, seemingly ignoring the pompous little man.

Honor my duty, he thought as he faced the writhing mass of corruption lay before him. Steeling himself, he spoke in a loud, commanding voice, gaze encompassing the entirety of the Citadel.

“Under the ancient laws of Sept Askir, and as a servant to the Blood, I, General Aldrich Heartsbane of the Fifth Legion accuse this Chamber of treason.” Gasps rose among the seated members of the Citadel. Murmurs turned into angry shouts and calls for Aldrich’s head.

Lehr, chin high and all resolute surety, smiled. Aldrich truly hated this man. “As you can see,” Lehr began in a quiet, bemused tone, “this is politics, not the battlefield, General. One must use tact and guile, not brute force.” Lehr turned to face the Chamber once more, this time addressing their audience, “Undoubtedly our young General thought to scare us into submission, parking his Legion outside our doors. How unfortunate the Legion serves Askir and not one Mann. I propose this insurgent be stripped of his titles and lands and his Command be given to a worthier Askiri.” Cheers rose from the audience as Councilmembers demanded Aldrich remove himself from the dais.

Aldrich simply smiled as the great doors to the Citadel opened once more. The long shadow cast under the flame from the statue of the robed woman atop the archway revealed several figures entering the Chamber. A hooded figure made its way towards the dais, escorted by an entourage of Legionnaires wearing grim faces.

As the hood of the figure dropped, it revealed a tall, slender woman of middle years; her pale eyes regally studying the chamber as murmurs once again began to rise. Suddenly, several Councilmembers rose and began to make their way towards the exit, only to be halted by the grim-faced Legionnaires.

“I present Councilwoman Aedra Ye’thril,” Aldrich said, eyes never leaving the now stony-faced Lehr.

Had Aldrich quit the field the day the courier reached him, the young Malkari officer, so forthcoming with information, would not have been captured. Had he quit the field, he would not have discovered the location of Aedra’s prison, or the fact she was still alive to begin. Had he quit the field…

Aedra’s cool, melodious voice swept over the Chamber, instantly quieting the murmurs from the Councilmembers, “Lords of Askir; my fellow Council members, I stand before you now as a petitioner and accuser. Members of this Council have long stood against the people of Askir. For their greed; for their avarice, these extortionists have colluded with enemy, kindled hostilities, and sent our sons and daughters to die to line their pockets. Here I stand, a victim of their greed. For a year I was held a prisoner by the Malkari, but at the behest of this swine,” she pointed to a now ghost-white Lehr. “By the Blood and the spirit of the Ancestors, I swear by my testimony, and ask as a servant of Askir that justice be mine.” At her last words, she knelt, head down and hands outstretched towards the Chamber as was custom for petitioners to do.

Silence filled the chamber. Horrified faces peered from the tiered stands. All that could be heard in the next instant was the rasping of a blade being removed from its scabbard. The man who approached the dais, dagger in hand, was Grealt Throm, the Councilman second only to Lehr himself. Stopping at the kneeling woman, Grealt placed the blade in her outstretched hand. Satisfaction filled Aldrich as he watched the woman stand to face Lehr.

Backing away, Lehr stepped into two Legionnaires, who seized him instantly. Fear marked the man’s face.

“Lies! It’s lies,” Lehr shouted, trying to pull free from his captors. “It’s a Malkari ruse to break the Council! You must listen to-“ His cries were cut off as Aedra buried the blade into his chest.

The Councilmembers who had attempted to leave were now clamoring to escape the Legionnaires guarding them, pleading to be released.

“Take them to the Tower, Fjrey,” Aldrich called out, never taking his eyes from the crumpled Lehr before him. “The Blood calls to me. It bids I take my place among you at last,” he said calmly, now addressing the Chamber. “I do not petition, I do not kneel before you. I stand before the Council in the Citadel of our Ancestors as a servant of Askir and offer you a choice. Cast aside propriety and carve a path through history, lest we allow our customs to once again curse us with the rapacity of Mann,” Aldrich gestered towards Lehr to drive his point home. “Stand beside me and the honor of the Blood will be fulfilled. Stand with me and we will unify our ancestral grounds under one banner. I, Aldrich Heartsbane, General of the Fifth Legion swear by the Blood that we will stand atop a glorious new empire and usher in a new age of prosperity.”

At his closing, Aedra and the remaining Legionnaires knelt before the dais at Aldrich’s feet, though only Aedra spoke, “I swear by the Blood and the honor of the Ancestors, that I shall follow you in this life and the next, until The Coalescing.”

After a moment of stunned silence, Grealt made his way back to the dais. Kneeling, he mimicked the oath of Aedra, “I swear by the Blood and the honor of the Ancestors, that I shall follow you in this life and the next, until the Coalescing.”

One by one, members of the Council made their way from the stands to kneel before Aldrich Heartsbane, Aldrich Askir, the first King of Riftwood.

“In the years following his speech to the Council, Aldrich waged the campaign to conquer and unify Septs within the Woods of Rift. Aldrich adopted the name Askir as his family name, as did many of the other nobles and Councilmembers as a way to set themselves apart from the other Septs as they came into the fold. This became the custom; as Septs joined the coalition, swearing allegiance to House Askir, the highborn would adopt their Sept name to display their rank within the new Kingdom,” Master Farrow finished in a dry, rasping voice.

Martine wrung his hands, wincing at the stiff muscles he gained in his hands from copious notetaking.

“I believe that’s enough for the day,” Master Farrow said in a hoarse voice, “we shall continue tomorrow. Tonight, your assignment will be to answer these questions: what customs of Riftwood have been passed down from the latter days of the Third Age, when Aldrich Askir began to unify the land? How was Grima entwined in the ritual and oathtaking of the time? Finally, Had Aldrich not been successful in convincing the Council to follow him, what would have been his fate?”

As he finished packing his bag with his writing utensils, Martine stood to leave.

“Very well, lad. Run along and study tonight. Tomorrow we will continue with the turmoil between house Haust and house Askir and how the marriage of King Tyreal and Queen Adena failed to bring about peace between the two houses. Mind you, do not be late again tomorrow, young Martine.”

At that, Martine bolted towards the door and made his way back to the winding streets of inner Aurielle City.