I woke to a slight kick in my back and rolled over; I stared into Lucas’s lightly bearded face. His eyes fluttered and he rolled over in his sleep, I gently untangled myself from the sheets and crept back towards the barracks, avoiding the early morning staff as they busied themselves fetching water and preparing the breakfast. I quietly closed the dorm door behind me and ignored the five snoring recruits who I shared with. I tucked myself into my cot, frustrated at its itchiness after the luxury of Lucas’s bed. I was just dozing off when the morning bell rang and Garth came bellowing into the dorm that we should ‘get off our lazy fat arses for morning exercises.
The six of us stood shivering in the cold winter morning, dressed only in our exercise tunics and breeches, with our winter boots barely keeping the cold out.
“Right as you all know the solstice is fast approaching!” Garth said as he paced up and down the line, I scowled at some of the snickering warriors who sipped at the warm gruel they’d been served for breakfast, watching the recruits shiver in the snow. “And I’m sorry to say that after nine years of training you sorry little runts you’re going to be fully fledged warriors, in just a week’s time.” We all straightened smiling at the thought. “Dismissed go and get some breakfast, then meet back here at noon, you have the morning off.”
I sat next to Jeon and Vincent in the barracks dining hall. I dipped my bread into the gruel and scowled at the grey mush, how I longed for the streaks of bacon Lucas would be tucking into right about now.
“I can’t believe it, warriors.” Said Vincent smiling a gap toothed grin at me, “It’s fucking amazing we’ll get our own rooms and armour and everything” I smiled as the conversation moved on to the solstice celebrations. The next week was filled with preparations for the celebrations; the six of us of us were left to prepare for the ceremony of manhood. I had sent for my family as had the other recruits and many villagers from Okerta would be arriving to join in the celebrations.
It was on solstice morning that I received a message from Lucas, ordering me to meet him at his study. I obeyed happy that I could see him after a week of mere glances, and the odd formal greeting in the hallways. I knocked on the study door and opened slipping in. I bowed to Lucas before smiling, he didn’t return my smile, and his face was grave.
“Is something amiss master?” Lucas’s gaze softened slightly.
“I hear you invited your family to the ceremony, that’s nice” he smiled at me, but I got the sense he was avoiding something. I gave him a querying look.
“Master, I may only be a serf, but I know you better than anyone. Something is troubling you.”
“Yes there’s no use hiding it from you. The ceremony is to take place at the orchard shrine.” I felt my heart beat speed up.
“You mean the shrine where...”
“Yes Tulip. I’m sorry but its tradition it can’t be avoided.”
“Yes Master I understand”
“do you think you can manage it?”
“Of course, you’ll be there won’t you” I mumbled, he smiled at that, he opened his arms, I gave into his embrace, we stood like that a while before he sent me away to prepare for the ceremony.
We six recruits stood in the barracks, alone. Are chests were all bare, and swirling lines had been drawn in kohl across our entire upper bodies and faces, including the arms. Our lower bodies were covered by a single blood red robe, which hung just off the ground. We each wore thick leather boots. We stood in silence, waiting for the word to emerge into the front courtyard. We all jumped at the knock on the door. Garth strode in. he wore full his full plate armour, with his long and short swords in ornate scabbards; the long sword on the right and the short on the left. He wore full plate over his body; he put his captain’s helmet on, the large plume of feathers standing out at the top.
“Time to become men my boys” he said, flinging open the double doors to the crowd. As we steeped out into the cold the crowd cheered. My eyes searched the crowd and I made out my father, mother, brother, as well as my sister’s husband and her two small children. The crowd was packed into the small courtyard and cheered, as we followed Garth out of the gate. The crowd followed our small procession up into the hills and through the wood to the small shrine. We entered through the door. The hall was ringed by twenty or so of Lucas’s soldiers, each in full kit, their faces covered by the heavy helmets. I looked to the far end of the hall where Lucas stood in a rich blue robe. Behind him was a small table with six bundles on it. The six of us kneeled in a parallel line facing Lucas, we waited for the crowd to enter, and the doors were swung shut when everyone had entered. Garth stood beside the table his hand resting on the hilt of his long sword. Lucas spoke up.
“My friends! we are here this winter’s solstice to celebrate the day these six fine men become warriors!” At this the crowd cheered, and I smiled to myself. “After nine years of strife and effort these young men have proven themselves worthy and without further ado I shall begin the ceremony.” Lucas turned his back to us and raised his arms to the ceiling. “In the name of the emperor we pray” everyone echoed, apart from the six of us who remained quiet.
“In the name of the emperor we pray” the crowd went silent and bowed their heads praying to themselves. Suddenly the twenty guards rapped the butts of their spears on the ground in unison. I looked up and Lucas took the first bundle from Garth and turned to Jeon, the first of the line.
“Jeon Sals Vas Lucas, rise a warrior” Jeon stood shakily and took the bundle from Lucas and the crowd cheered, the guards pounded their spears again and again. This repeated itself four more times until it became my turn. I looked at Lucas’s smiling face and couldn’t help a faint smile myself. “Tulip Konos Vas Lucas, rise a warrior and freeman” the crowd began a cheer then went silent, sweat poured down my brow. I remained kneeling. Lucas kept smiling at me, “I said rise, a warrior and freeman” I stood almost collapsing and took the bundle from Lucas. He nodded at me and I bowed to him. Lucas turned to the shocked crowd and other recruits. “as of this day Tulip is to be known as, Tulip Konos ves” The crowd remained stunned for a moment, then cheering broke out and the crowd rushed forward, enveloping me, people struggled to shake my hand and some just touched me. I felt people pulling at my hair. The guards eventually pushed the crowd off me. “Let the celebrations begin!” cried Lucas swinging an axe into the top of a barrel of beer which had been brought into the shrine.
I had joined in the celebrations at first, slightly light headed with shock; I danced with Jessica and avoided my family. Eventually I grew tired and made my way to the back of the circular hall behind the small stand which had been erected for the music players. I slumped down with my back to the wall, and pulled the bundle towards me and examined it.
It was heavy, and wrapped in a black cloak. I unrolled the bundle the contents laid out on the cloak. There were two small scrolls sealed by wax and a leather coin purse. I pulled the larger of the two scrolls towards me and picked off the seal. I began to read:
My dearest Tulip
Today you have become a freeman, an honour which I hope you will come to appreciate, I cannot say why you have been given this honour as the emperor forbade this, however what I can say is that you will always have my support, friendship and love. You no longer owe me any bond nor do you to the serfdom of Oker, but I hope that you will stay with us, at least for a while. Your home after all is here. I ask that tonight you come to me so we can talk; I cannot hope to embody what I must say to you in the form of writing. Enclosed in the next scroll is an order for a full set of kit for the master craftsman, along with something special just for you. The purse too is a little special for you, it contains three gold sovereigns, fifty silver sovereigns and three hundred coppers, more than enough to cover the costs at the master craftsman as well as a little spending money I hope to talk to you about tonight. For now stop reading this at the back of the hall and come and rejoin the party. Your Lucas.
I smiled to myself, rewrapping the bundle and getting up. I replaced the bundle on the table next to the other five, and jumped at my brother’s voice.
“Who’d have thought my brother a warrior and a freedman to boot” I turned and embraced my brother in a hug,
“Brother I missed you” I murmured happily into his chest.
“Easy now brother. Come and talk to your family we have so much to catch up on.” My brother led me to a small alcove where my family was sat around a small table talking, my nephews hardly awake on my sister’s lap. My mother nearly fainted when she saw me, and my father got to his feet enveloping me in a hug.
“Come sit with us” He said gleefully, I squeezed in after my father and my brother followed, trapping me with my family. “Nine years, you’ve changed so much Tulip.” I blushed at this, “You’re a man now, and a freeman, you’ve brought much honour to the family.” My father continued. I happily chatted with my family for hours, catching up the years, I hadn’t been allowed to return home during my training and only the odd letter between myself and my family were exchanged. I hit it off well with my sister’s husband and I learnt that the twins, her sons, were named Ying and Yang. Such creative names I thought to myself sarcastically, though they were healthy looking children with their father’s strong chin and sharp nose. I was just regaling my family with the tale of the time I fought the wolf and nearly died when the smiles went from their faces and was replaced with awe; I looked around and saw a smug looking Lucas standing behind me.
“Master! Come sit with us, this is my family” My family drew in a sharp breath at the informality I addressed my former master with. He waved his hand slightly.
“Please Tulip; it’s just Lucas or Tulip now.” My family were virtually fitting as I exchanged friendly words with Lucas, “and I’d be honoured to get to know the family I bought you from.” I blushed at this, and shuffled up as Lucas slipped onto the bench next to my nervous brother.
Eventually my father and Lucas were trapped in a deep conversation about the workings of the mine, when a bell sounded signalling the end of the solstice and the coming of the next day. Lucas took his leave and slowly the guests made their way towards Okerta and the tavern there. I said my farewells to my family and converged with the over five recruits who were forming a semi-circle around Garth, who had removed his helmet and held It under his arm.
“I have never been more proud my friends, you have become fine warriors and I am honoured I can say that we will stand by each other’s sides in battle.” At this the six of us whooped, Garth grinned, “Now if you’ll put on your cloaks we’ll head back for the Manor and tomorrow we’ll see the master craftsman and get you your kit.” We followed Garth back to the Manor.
After everyone had gone to bed, I slipped out of mine, and crept through the Manor towards Lucas’s study. I knocked quietly and slipped in. Lucas was standing bent over his desk and didn’t look up as I entered. I wrapped my arms around his back and rested my chin on his bent back.
“Master, you wanted to see me.” He turned around a glint in his eye
“I told you not to call me that.” He said smiling at me.
“I’m sorry mas... I mean Lucas.” I looked at my feet submissively “It’s just habit; I don’t really know what I’m meant to do as a bondless.”
“Nothing my love, but yes I did send for you, we have much to discuss. Follow me.” I followed Lucas into the kitchen and from there into the cellar. Once there we headed into the wine rooms until we reached a massive iron door, it possessed an intricate lock, which Lucas produced a warped and wild key for. “This lock cost me more than a hundred of you would have.” He snorted at this and pushed the door open, leading me inside the room. The room was filled with urns, about half my height and just as wide as me neatly stacked up against the wall, holding a torch low, Lucas beckoned me over to one which he had removed the lid from. He plunged his hand inside and produced a fistful of gold sovereigns. “My family fortune”
“How much is there here Lucas?” I stared mesmerised by the gold before me.
“four hundred thousand gold sovereigns, double that in silvers and half again as many coppers.” I did the quick sums in my head, if 10 coppers were a silver and 10 silvers was a gold sovereign,
“That’s 429 000 gold sovereigns” I gasped.
“Yes and this is only a tenth of my fortune, excluding any holdings”
“But Lucas how can you have so much”
“My great grandfather found a daemon, and as a reward the emperor gave him the money, since then the fortune has dropped by over a half, you understand the vast sum paid by the emperor for a Daemon now?”
“It is the same type of Daemon that resides in you, the same Daemon the emperor knows you possess, which is why he instructed me to free you and keep you here until he arrived, naturally he told me to keep all this from you, but I will not do that.”
“I don’t understand Lucas”
“I have never met the emperor, and I don’t trust him, but there is no doubting the good he has done in building the empire, order has been brought to the world, beyond the frontier there is war and savagery, here we have meaning, even if that meaning is to serve the emperor.”
“But why are you saying all this.”
“Because I love you, and I fear for you, if the emperor is coming here every noble in the empire will know something powerful lies here, it is the Daemon which gives the emperor his power. There are many nobles willing to kill for it, and one such noble Is our neighbour, Beluse even now his spy rides to him to tell him of what I did today, as does the emperors to tell him that I followed your orders.”
“Who are the spies?”
“your friend Jessica is the emperor’s spy and one of my most trusted guards was Beluse’s both left during the night.”
“Jessica!” I cried
“Yes, I’m sorry I knew from the start, I gave her a job here on orders from the emperor, now come, it is high time we slept, but first I wish to give you a gift.”
When we were in Lucas’s room he presented me with a small ring. On the ring was emblazoned the Oker emblem, “with this you have the authority of my family, but beware who sees you with it I have as many, if not more, enemies as I do friends. I eyed the ring completely stunned by everything Lucas had told me, I sat heavily on the foot of his bed.