Fifth Day, First Ride, Autumn Twilight, 1262
(Silvermoon is waxing, Bloodmoon is waning, Darkmoon is waning)
My name is Kasia. I was born in the year of the winter mare in the voivodeship of Żubrówka, on the western plains of Silesia. When life was good, father drove cattle and mother taught letters and numbers. They always spoke about leaving the plains and moving to the lands of evergreen. Father would rear horses or mind cattle for a lord, while mother would be a handmaid to a lady, and we would never have to follow the herd again.
Misfortune struck when the blood rain began to fall; my mother and sister were taken by a plague, as were many others. We were all afraid and everyone prayed. The elders said an old evil had awoken. When the ground was soaked scarlet the dead began to rise from their barrows at night, so father made sure to bury mamuśka and Lena extra deep and to put heavy stones upon their graves.
The situation grew worse. Father said he could not face another day on the plains while they were shrouded in darkness. The snow was upon us but we packed up and left. It was not the way I had imagined coming to Lyria. We were tired and hungry, and we had to sell the few things we managed to strap to Bucefałus’ harness.
We made it across the Lyrian range only to find that the lords of Farcorner were rebelling against the throne, and as a result, were weary of strangers. We travelled further west, passing grim-faced soldiers dressed in crimson cloaks, travelling east along the Silesian road, ready to confront the Farcorner rebels. Father held me close, making sure none of the men stepped out of line.
After days of travelling west, past small towns and hamlets, we reached an enormous tree. The largest tree I had ever seen. There were woods in Silesia, but there was mostly grasslands. In the summer, the Earthmother blessed the plains with wild flowers of all the colours of the rainbow. But nothing had been as impressive as that tree standing but a short distance from the road.
The tree’s warden, a burly man with a large beard and a pleasant accent, offered us a place to rest under the bough of the tree. Other travellers had gathered around the fire. There were Lyrians who were travelling home before the winter, knights in armour decorated with red, merchants ending the trading season, and the Szygani who followed their strange gods. There were even other Silesians who were fleeing the blood rain. It was the first time we felt welcomed.
Father had struck up a conversation with one of the guards belonging to the retinue of lord Jerod Brightmantle, a nobleman who was returning to his estate from preparing his lands for the winter and picking up his daughter from boarding school. The guard introduced father to lord Jerod, and lord Jerod introduced me to lady Grace, his daughter.
Father was offered to drive the lord’s cattle over the winter in return for an honest pay. It helped that father had his own horse and that he was as a more talented rider than anyone else in lord Jerod’s employ. I would wait on lady Grace and help work the stables.
Father departed the estate several days after our arrival, taking Bucefałus and riding north with the other drivers. He had calmed considerably once he found he got along with the others and he started smiling more. He made sure that I would be okay in his absence and I assured him I would be. I tended to lady Grace, which was made easy because she seemed fond of me. I waited on her in the morning and evening, and I worked the stables in the afternoon, while she was studying.
Life was good. Too good. I could almost forget what we had left behind in Silesia. Almost.
It was the second ride of my stay at Dawnlight Hall and lord Jerod was set to travel south, to Kingsport. He was to prepare the Brightmantle manse in the city for their stay during the winter, and he bade lady Grace to join him. Where she went, I was told to go. I was very excited.
It was a day’s travel to the river. There we boarded a boat which took us downstream. It was very exciting, but that excitement paled in comparison to the excitement I felt when the city came into view. Lady Grace pointed out the castle, the spires of the house of Paladine, and the dark peak of the house of the Raven Queen. She could also name all of the gates and bastions which made up the ramparts around the city. I was so mesmerised I did not even notice the gentle flurries of the first snow until one landed directly on my nose.
The boat took us right into the city through the river gate. I have never felt so small in my life. Lady Grace was much more accustomed to it, since her eyes were not on the city, but rather on the sky. She lamented that there were no griffon patrols. I remember my heart skipped a beat; griffons were a danger to the herd and no Silesion would dare or even consider riding the vicious beasts. Yet in Kingsport, the city guard patrolled them across the skies.
We disembarked and were met by Brightmantle guards. Lord Jerod and lady Grace boarded a carriage and I got to sit with the driver. One of the Brightmantle men wanted to inform the lord of important matters about the manse, its stores, and a foreign delegation coming to the city from the west, but lord Jerod first wanted to visit the cathedral to pay his respects to the Platinum Father.
The building was overwhelming in its splendour, and the square it sat on was larger than the village father and I had left behind not so long before. The Brightmantles went up to the great doors and were met by priests and clergymen. It was cold and I wanted to keep warm, so once the Brightmantles disappeared inside the cathedral I left the carriage to wander around. I was told to stay close, so I decided to walk around the square, which the driver told me was called “Steward’s Square”, or “Independence Square”, since the last steward of Kingsport died only two rides before. That fact seemed to hold great significance to the driver, though I didn’t quite understand why.
I walked around the square, always within eyesight of the carriage and house guards. I saw the temple of light, where brothers and sisters of Pholtus patiently tended to the sick and injured. I saw the fertile gardens of the Earthmother, and the placid silent sisters of the Raven Queen.
I stood in front of a small tower on the edge of the square which I later learned was called the carceratum. It had a ramp leading down into a dungeon below. Guards with scarlet cloaks and monks with red robes stood around and looked at me with weariness. It was unnerving, and it reminded me of the soldiers I saw marching east before we came to Northshire. Just as their looks turned to one of horror, I noticed a strange smell of thunder in the air.
The details of what happened next slowly returned to me over the next few years. Even now there are things that my mind refuses to recall. The chaplains of the order tell me that it is my mind protecting me from the hardships of that day. They say it is a testament to my resilience and willpower that I survived it without my mind in shatters in the first place.
There was a sound of rushing air which filled my ears as I turned around to face what had shocked the guards and monks so. Initially I had a difficult time understanding what it was that I was looking at. For years afterwards I continued to search for the words to describe it. Only when I had been witness to a full eclipse of the sun when I was in my sixth year at the order did I discover how to put it into words; a large oval disc, with a golden corona bordering it, just like an eclipse. It was as if someone had erected an enormous mirror in the middle of the square which reflected an absolute darkness, and whose frame was made of a warm, radiant light which was drawn into that darkness, unable to escape its pull.
I looked back to see the monks feverishly putting their hands together to form the sign of the holy triangle of Paladine. The guards raised their arms and shields in trepidation. I did not understand their fear and circled the black disc and tried to peer into its depths. For long seconds nothing happened until I saw something appear, as if emerging from beneath the surface of a dark ink. With every moment more revealed itself until I could make out two lanterns, suspended from chains, swinging from side to side, emitting a curious, yellow vapour.
I remember that my instincts warned me that I was in danger. I have since learned that had I not heeded the urge to hide, I would have suffered a horrible fate.
As I continued to back away, I saw the two figures who were swinging those noxious censers emerge from that dark surface; two hooded ratmen, which I know now to be the insidious skaven. Quickly, more skaven followed, wearing crude armour and wicked weapons; more than a dozen. Their cacophony of snarls and screeches joined the constant sound of rushing air coming from the rift.
The two hooded skaven stood to either side of the rift, while the others spread out defensively, making space for something else to emerge. It took a long moment before it did, the air tense with malicious potential in the meanwhile. The tension finally broke upon the rumbling sound of a deep grunt, resembling the mating call of a Silesian bison bull.
First I saw the beast.
It was enormous and dense, built somewhat like a bison, but ten times the weight. It’s body was covered in a thick, brown leather and a mane of shaggy, reddish fur. A set of chitinous plates ran along its spine from its forehead to its thick tail. It stood on short, powerful legs ending in hard, cleft hooves. Its torso was so muscled that its belly almost dragged along the ground, making its skin calloused from chest to tail. Crude, metal barding was added to its head, shoulder and hips, and it wore a harness which held a saddle on its arched back.
It had deep, sunken eyes and a broad, plated forehead from which a blunt, curved horn protruded. Long tusks jutted outward from either side of its jaw like the handles of a wheelbarrow, sweeping low along the ground. The tips of its tusks were fitted with sharp metal and a barbed chain ran between them.
It was clear that this beast was bred for war. What was equally clear was that the beast suffered from a terrible malady.
A sickly yellow foam was leaking from its muzzle. The skin around its eyes was thick and enflamed and puss had crusted in the fur around its eyes. Its flesh was riddled with bloated pustules teeming with the undulating eggs of parasites that seemed like they were about to burst open.
Saddled on the beast’s back was a different calibre of nightmare.
Nausea and dizziness overtook me as I beheld the rider; a tall figure dressed in elaborate armour that must have once been splendorous but now was scarred and battered. The armour was missing the chest piece and exposed skin so drained of colour it had the tone of sour milk. Despite its body being strong and lean, its belly was swollen, like that of a pregnant heifer. There was a jagged gut wound in the swelling and some of the rider’s intestines spilled from the wound like coils of sausage links. Dense clusters of large, puss-filled blisters surrounded the wound.
The rider’s head was bald and its face was the same pallid colour as its torso. Its thin skin was stretched tight along its deep brow and hooked nose. So tight, that it seemed that it didn’t quite fit, and looked like it was a flimsy mask that it was wearing. Around the mouth and eyes it looked as if the skin had started to peel away, exposing a dark, chapped skin underneath. There was not a hair on its deformed head, but instead it had row of small horns pierce through the skin where hair should be. The back of its head was a mess of strange growth the colour of spoilt meat.
Bony branches grew from somewhere behind its head and the pauldrons of its armour. They looked like the antlers of a stag, but more twisted and gnarled. They were adorned with trinkets, talismans and animal bones, which reminded me of the items carried by plainstrider healers back home.
I was awoken from my fright by the stench coming from the invaders and realised that there was shouting and screaming all around me. In my horror I had not noticed that the guards and monks had foolishly engaged the group. They were overwhelmed by the skaven before they could mount an organised defence. I bolted down the ramp of the carceratum and looked on.
The rider observed the dead from atop its mount and wrote something with a filthy, black quill in a large, leather-bound book that it had chained to a girdle. There were several other items attached to its waist, though I can only recall a large hourglass, and something that looked like an abacus.
When it was done writing in its book it stood up in its stirrups and put the quill and book away. It spoke with a booming voice the sound of a rockslide and my mind filled with buzzing, as if my head was invaded by a thousand insects. Both sounds seemed intent on conveying meaning, as if I heard two voices at the same time, though neither made any sense to me.
“Let it be known that plague and pestilence shall take this city,” the two hooded skaven said in a shrill voice, translating for their master, “if the Liber Bubonicus is not returned to me.” Slowly the mount started to move at a slow gait, heading directly towards the carceratum where I was hiding. The hooded skaven preceded it while the others formed a skirmish at the flanks and the rear.
I retreated down the ramp as much as I could and soon found myself with my back against the doors leading into the dungeon, unable to retreat any further. All I could see as I looked up the ramp were the silhouettes of the rider and its mount, flanked on each side by the hooded skaven against the grey sky. The buzzing in my head got louder, and the rider spoke again with a voice like shale rock while raising hand to point a finger at me.
“Tell your queen to root out the one they call the upright man and return to me the Book of Woe,” the hooded skaven said in unison while also pointing at me. Everything they said and did was an echo of what the rider said and did. I remember the rider turning its head to look at something happening in the square and the buzzing subsided a bit. Someone was confronting them again and the group moved away from the carceratum.
I steadied my breath and crept up the ramp only to witness the priests of Paladine, together with Brightmantle guards and several guards in scarlet cloaks which had arrived, confront the skaven and the rider. Lord Jerod was among them, having drawn his sword after ordering his carriage away, carrying lady Grace to safety, though I did not know of her fate at the time.
Again, the buzzing returned as the rider spoke out, its words translated into shrill voices by the hooded skavens. “Your precious good health shall be forfeit until the book is submitted to me, Epidemius the Cataloguer, Lord of Decay,” the skavens shrieked in unison with the rider’s awful voice. “I shall return with each cycle of Nasul and your wounds will continue to fester,” they warned.
The only good thing about the fight was that it was short. I do not remember many details to this day, despite the sessions with the chaplains of the order. What I do remember was that this time the rider got involved. I remember his mount trampling the priests and him twisting lord Jerod into an broken state, both physically as well as mentally. I remember screaming at Epidemius until my voice was raw, begging for him to let lord Jerod die.
Afterwards, when lord Jerod had ceased moving, there was a moment of stillness on the square. The only thing I heard was a snort from the beast. Epidemius wrote something in the book at his belt, snapped the book shut and took the reigns to reel the mount around. The skaven followed, their beady eyes casting furtive glances in all directions.
As the mount continued to walk, Epidemius unfurled a scroll, read aloud from it in his grating voice, and a torrent of ruinous energy projected from him. It ripped into the fabric of our reality and tearing open another black rift, identical to the one through which they arrived. As soon as the last of the skirmishing skaven was through, the rift closed itself and the square fell back into peaceful silence, with snow gently falling from above.
People had dared to come back into the square by the time I stopped shaking. The two large, bloodstained circles in the snow that signalled the two massacres were quickly surrounded by onlookers. Where the first few people that arrived paid attention to me, wondering how a young girl was able to survive what had happened, I was quickly forgotten once the commotion started. More guards with scarlet cloaks arrived who tried to disperse the crowd, with little success.
People were asking what happened, who was responsible, where the attackers had gone. Wild stories began to circulate, each of them carrying a bit of the truth, most had a lot of speculation, and none could captured the horror that I witnessed. It was said that the silent sisters of the Raven Queen had started wailing at the time of the attack and had not ceased since. I also heard that the gardens at the temple of the Earthmother had withered, which I had later verified to be true.
I remember the next couple of days to be very difficult. The curfew was tightened and there were more patrols on the streets, making it difficult to travel through the city. It made it impossible for me to find out where the Brightmantle estate was and it forced me to sleep outside and scavenge for food. All while it snowed.
On the third day after the invasion, while I was scavenging for food in a pig enclosure, I was found by a kindly man in simple, fur-lined robes, carrying a leather case. He introduced himself as father Devon, a priest devoted to Pholtus. He took me to the Temple of Light for some food and water. It appeared that just like the other houses of worship, the followers of Pholtus had also been affected by Epidemius’ appearance for they had been flooded by people seeking healing and care.
With father Devon’s aid, I was reunited with lady Grace a day later. She had been made lady of Dawnlight Hall in the wake of her father’s death and it was clear that she was struggling. I supported her as she mourned the loss of her father and came to terms with the position she had been put in. In turn, she held me whenever I woke up screaming in the night and counselled me on how to reclaim my courage. Which I did.
And still, after all these years, having learned all the things that I’ve learned, I still wonder whether it was not me who brought the plague from the plains of Silesia to the lands of evergreen.