Authors: Kris Kramer
Book 1 of Dominion
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Kris Kramer on
Copyright © 2013 by Kris Kramer
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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.
Cover artwork by Bill Harkins
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My wife died last month.
She had been sick for some time. I don’t know what exactly troubled her, but for the last year she’d been more tired than usual, her skin sagged off her bones, and her beautiful smile showed itself less than I was accustomed to. At first I worried she might be slow to recover from some illness, perhaps the terrible colds that seemed to get worse as we aged. The Welsh winters could be harsh, this last year especially, and some days the cold burrowed deep into our bones, no matter how large the fire in our hearth. I became sick myself, but only for a week. She became sick, and it never left her.
The last two months were the worst. She barely ate, and fevers troubled her every few days. She spent the final days of her life in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, and I must admit that when death finally took her on a quiet, spring morning, just as the sun rose above the east hills, a small part of me was happy to see her escape her suffering. But I mourned for her, for a long time. I missed her dearly, I still do, but I know that she’s in a place much better than what I could ever provide for her. And I know when I join her, she’ll be smiling, and waiting for me with open arms, along with those we were lucky enough to call our friends. I almost envied her for seeing them first.
I suppose that's why I find myself sitting here now, hunched over a small, uncomfortable writing desk, staring at two piles of parchments. One stacked with crumbled, rolled, torn and disheveled pages, each one full of scribbled notes and diagrams. The other straight and neat, each page blank and ready to hold the breadth of my experiences. I'd intended to do this long ago, over forty years ago in fact, but life continued to get in my way. So now, today even, would be the day when life no longer held me in thrall. Today I would write the story of my life, a story that is probably best never read.
My son asks me if I need anything. He always worries about my health, but now he worries about my mind as well. It’s in his nature. He’s a lot like me in that way, though he never found himself in the grasp of the Church as I did. Instead, he runs the farm, handling the work that I’ve always found difficult to do with my injury. God bless the boy, he’s been nothing but a boon to me, as are my daughters, though they both live in Ireland now and I don’t see them as much.
But my son, he worries because I’ve withdrawn. I spend my time lately thinking and remembering, gathering my thoughts about the times of my youth that forever shaped me. And these are not easy memories to share. So I keep to myself, content that if he wants to know what troubles me, he will be able to read this, and know everything that came to be before he was born. He can read all about my tales of battle, though these were of a war few would have known. He could read about every terrible loss I suffered, and every great victory I achieved, though the victories were few and far between. He would learn how it all started on one terrible autumn day in Wessex, amongst the ruin of so many lives.
My memories of that day are still vivid, though they do not haunt my dreams as they did when I was younger. It was October 23rd, in the year of our Lord 866. That was the day when the raiders came from the sea and destroyed a village. That was the day of my first encounter with the horrifying evil that runs rampant in this world. The day when I would finally discover the terrible, heart-wrenching path God had chosen for me, and the sacrifices I would have to make to see it through.
It's been forty years since that day, but even now, at an age when most men would be frail or buried, I can remember every last detail of every little moment.
I remember them because I can never forget...
It all began on a day soaked in blood.
A terrible storm brewed off the coast of Rogwallow in Wessex, turning the skies in the south black and everything else a twisted, roiling grey. Heavy winds buffeted the small church house I ministered to, causing the soggy roof timbers to shudder under their force and the unlatched wooden door to slam shut over and over again. The faint scent of incense had long ago given way to the pungent stench of warm blood and entrails spilled across the coarse stone floor. And the knife at my neck was cold, sharp and desperate for another victim.
The raiders came shortly after dawn, bringing death and destruction on a day meant for joy. They were mercenaries from Kent, mostly, though they'd been hired by a Frank whose name I didn't know and whose motivations I didn’t understand at the time. Even though the weather delayed their attack briefly, we were still caught by surprise, and most of the men in town barely had the time or the wits to defend themselves. Too many of us were dulled by the celebration the night before, and that was to be our undoing.
The young girl next to me, forced to her knees and wearing nothing more than her shift, sobbed uncontrollably, shivering from the cold and no doubt her abject fear about what would happen next. Her name was Aedre, she was fifteen years of age, and she should have been married that midday. Instead, she'd watched her family, who'd sought refuge in the church when the raiders came, brutally murdered right in front of her. Then her meager jewelry was stolen and her clothes were stripped from her body as the four men holding us laughed. They hadn't despoiled her yet, although I could tell by their tone that would happen soon. And there I sat, a young man dressed only in priestly garb, weak and helpless, barely past twenty years old, forced to watch while my adopted village was destroyed and its people ravaged. For all I knew at the time, Aedre and myself were the only people from Rogwallow still alive. But even though I thought I'd seen the worst these raiders could show me, I was to be horrified yet again when Caenwyld arrived.
I didn't know him at the time – I learned his name a little bit later – but when the door opened and he walked in to that church, I knew without a doubt he was a wolf in sheep's clothing. Under a heavy fur-lined cloak, he wore a simple brown robe with a heavy gold cross necklace, and he presumed that made him a priest. He was old, well past forty, and thin, with a gaunt face and a long nose. But his dark, deep-set eyes made me remember the cold in the air and I shivered uncontrollably.
“God’s glory surrounds us today,” he said grandly as he approached us with a limp. He didn’t seem injured, so I suspected it was something he already suffered from. “We have done His work here in Rogwallow, and we have done it well. He favors us all.” He gave me a cursory glance, sizing me up immediately as someone to be ignored, at least for the moment. His lust for the girl, however, was obvious. His eyes never left Aedre as he approached and roughly caressed her face, ignoring her cringing and wiping the tears from her cheek in what he must have thought was a caring gesture.
Please Lord, I prayed, spare her what’s about to come. Had I a harder soul in my youth I would have wished death upon her just then, because that would have been merciful compared to what Caenwyld had in mind.
"She is quite beautiful for someone born of this hovel,” he continued. “Perhaps we should give thanks to God for letting us look upon an angel such as her." His caressing suddenly turned into a rigid grasp under her chin. “What is your name?”
She continued to sob, and avoided looking at him but he lifted her chin, forcing her gaze up.
“Your name, girl.” His tone became harsh. “I like to know the name of those whom I judge.”
She cried even harder, and I could see Caenwyld losing patience.
“Her name is Aedre,” I said, my voice dry and raspy. “She was to be married today.”
He turned to me, and I cowered because I saw the devil in his black eyes.
"Why is he still alive?" Caenwyld asked, every word laced with venom.
The raiders looked uncomfortable at this question and didn't answer right away.
Finally, one spoke.
"No one wanted to kill a priest, m'lord."
Caenwyld stared at them furiously, and I thought for sure he’d order my neck slit and be done with it. But then his gaze softened and he looked me over, his eyes stopping on the crude leather crucifix I wore around my neck. I thought at the time that his thoughtful expression meant he'd decided to take pity on me. Nowadays, though, I think he was only being prudent for a man in his position.
"As well you shouldn't," he told them. "He is a man of God, and killing a man of God without good cause would destroy the favor He has bestowed upon us today. But that doesn’t mean we let him roam free.” His eyes took hold of mine, and so help me, I couldn’t look away. “God saw fit to see your followers destroyed for their crimes today, boy, so I wouldn’t presume to take any chances with your life. The only thing a priest truly needs in this world is his tongue. So keep your mouth shut and you may get through this with everything else on your body as it still is.”
I wasn't a priest, not a real one, but there was no sense in explaining that to these men. Regardless, I believed his threat completely. I'd heard stories in Rome about men like this, who amused themselves through suffering. I'd seen beggars in that great city with their eyes pierced, or their hands and feet cut or burned or mutilated beyond use, all for the sake of cruelty. There were moments in my youth, when I’d thought myself a true Christian, where I imagined being ready to sacrifice myself for God. But at that moment I knew I was too weak to give my life for anyone. I would stay quiet, and I would keep my limbs.
“For now, though," he turned to Aedre, "I shall see if this girl is as pure as she claims. You do know, Aedre, that it's a sin to marry if you're not clean?" Caenwyld leaned in close and lifted the bottom of her shift, showing her legs. I don't know how much more of her he revealed because I looked away. "How many other men have known you?"
"None," I heard her whisper between gulping sobs. No one spoke right away, and the only other sound in the church was the patter of raindrops on the roof. Everyone surely ogled the girl, but I kept my eyes fixed on a clump of blood-stained tulips and ribbon laying on the floor to my left, ashamed at my uselessness.
"We shall see. Take her out back," he said to the lout holding her by the arm. "I will test her myself, and we’ll see if God’s glory favors me today as well." Someone chuckled and I turned back to see the raider lift her up effortlessly, and drag her out the back door. Aedre kicked and struggled the whole way but it made no difference against a man twice her size.
"As for you," Caenwyld glared at me, and my body became numb with fear. "Perhaps if you behave through all of this, you can have her when the rest of us are done." The other three raiders laughed, but I barely heard them over Aedre's screaming as her captor dragged her to the goat pen behind the church.
I'd prayed countless times that morning, but all of them had been from fear and panic – an instinctual reaction to seeing your death approach. This time, though, I truly prayed for God to intervene, to ignore my past transgressions and right these wrongs. And even though I didn’t believe he would answer my call, not after everything I'd just witnessed, I had to try. It was the only weapon I had.
Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble...for the Lord, your God is the one who goes with you. He WILL NOT fail you or forsake you.