Marcus Marcus and the Hurting Heart, by Rab S. Fulton

Act 1: Visiting Glaik

Scene Four

If ‘A Prayer of Thankful Celebration’ had made me uncomfortable, the details of my anniversary itinerary left me bored. It was only at the end of our meeting that my mood picked up again, as If-Dec told me where my final engagement was to take place.

He had chosen well, for my last engagement was to be in the far north, up in the Northern Marches. The Northern Marches were populated by a people who were fiercely loyal to the House Sejan. A warrior race, they make up the bulk of my combat troops policing the former War Zone. They had only become part of my family’s territories some seven hundred years ago. Before that they were left alone to indulge in endless warring amongst each other; their short lives graced though by a culture of song, myth and stories as rich in colour and detail as the finest tapestries hung in the halls of the nobles of more advanced peoples.

After one particularly violent bout of heroic warfare – in which up to one half of the population was killed either by weaponry, disease or hunger – the tribes begged the Sejan Prince to intervene. Admittedly, there are historians who state that the House Sejan, through various duplicitous means, had engineered and magnified the later wars of the Northern Marches. Whatever the truth of the matter, the response to the tribes’ petition was immediate and beneficial. Food was distributed; excessive weaponry collected in an amnesty; and most important of all, the Northern Marches were incorporated into Glaik City.

To curtail the endless bloodshed, the Northern Marches were organized into seven departments. Each year, regardless of their locality or tribe, infants deemed fit to live are registered in the department that has been designated the Mother Home for that year. It is only in their designated Mother Home that the people can access markets, law courts, and the political machinery of the vast Glaik City. As they pass from childhood to adulthood, the young men and women must go through a series of terrifying rituals swearing loyalty to their designated Mother Home. These arrangements succeeded in quickly diluting local bloody feuds, while the anarchic warrior ethic was transformed into an honourable career in the Sejan military, where the troops of the Northern Marches fight in separate units representing each of the Mother Home departments.

One unforeseen consequence of this is that the Northern Marches are now the most peaceful part of Glaik City. The tribes would be regarded as a paragon of civic administration if not for the fact that they retain some of their more barbaric customs. Each winter, the weakest of infants are deposited naked on the ice floes that grind against the freezing coastline, or at the base of trees in the dark snow-muffled forests. There, the wailings of the babies quickly attract the attention of hungry bears, wolves and foxes.

In contrast to this ritualized infanticide, those ‘crippled in life’ are deemed touched by the divinities and are cared for with pride. This care applies to everyone from the age of three years on. Particular respect is given to those wounded in body and mind during combat, the most revered being those maimed battling for the House Sejan.

Augurs are allowed to travel through the territories of the Northern Marches, but it is only the most committed of volunteers who do so. The visiting Augurs rarely suffer any physical harm, and it has been over a decade since any have been killed there, but they do suffer from isolation, constant contempt and only being given such food, shelter and assistance as absolutely necessary to carry out their functions.

It is not that the people of the Northern Marshes are predisposed towards heresy, it is just that they lack any understanding of the concept of the Divine Earth. For centuries the imagery and wording of the true faith have graced the temples, groves, river banks, and other sacred spaces of the cold north, but have failed to change the core beliefs of the people there. At best, the pictures and words of the Divine Earth have attained a certain talismanic virtue – they are simply more gewgaws used to ward off ill luck and add decoration to the rock, tree or hole in the ground in which it is supposed spirits live whom locals can ask to intercede in their daily affairs.

Of most concern to Augurs is that these chthonic imps and sprites often live in places associated with the long-extinct Aberrations. Archaeological evidence shows that other parts of En-Feshqa also had small clusters of these semi-sentient creatures, but most of the remains are of villages and tools from hundreds of thousands of years ago. In the cold north, though, Aberrations not only clung on till antiquity but interacted with human settlements. There is even strong suggestion in myths and folktales of interbreeding between the two species. It is this alleged commingling of alien with human blood that is held responsible for the peculiar physiognomy of the peoples of the north. Whilst most have the short stature, ruddy skin and dark almond eyes of En-Feshqa’s northern peoples, many of the inhabitants have peculiar additional features, for example, a lizard-like mottling of the skin, or eyes the red of blood or the gold of the richest honey.

Regardless of their physical and cultural peculiarities, these are my favourite amongst my many varied subjects. If not for the freezing weather and the very strict codes on sex and inebriation, I would have gladly have made my base in the north, rather than in the warmer and more morally flexible climes of The Peninsula.

‘Thank you, If-Dec!’ I cried out with delight. ‘That’s the perfect way to end things. Absolutely perfect.’ I shook his hand with vigour and only just managed to stop myself embracing him. It was indeed a perfect end, and as we sat there grinning I considered what further honours I could give my vizier to show my appreciation for his devotion and thoughtfulness. A reckless thought came to me then. I laughed at the audacity of it, but said nothing, just shook my vizier’s hand with greater vigour.

When If-Dec left, I looked through my personal belongings and took out a small book bound in deerskin leather. The book contained quotes from various religious texts. I spent the next hour reading, reciting and memorizing an extract from the foundation myth of the Northern Marches:

And Father Bear, though lost in the wilderness, knew no fear and spoke thus:

‘I am as a stranger in a strange land but I will suffer no fear, for my claws and my teeth will never fail me; and few are they who will dare defy me; and none are they who will ever defeat me.’

And the creatures of the wilderness swore fidelity to Father Bear and anointed him Warrior King and his most loyal subjects were the peoples of the Northern Marches.

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Stay tuned for more of the adventures of ‘Marcus Marcus and the Hurting Heart’.

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Illustration by Marina Wild. For more on Marina’s work see www.marinawild.com