For generations, there was a quiet place, a meadow with a river running through it that led to the sea from which travellers could cross to far-flung lands in ships. There was a road which cut across the meadow, built of granite cobbles carefully fitted together, along which passed the odd traveller. But only a few passed this way. Mostly this was a forgotten corner where only the field mice played and hares leaped and starflowers grew. And trees – large trees whose spreading canopy provided shelter from the sun and shed nuts for weary travellers to eat when they paused beneath the branches.
It was a place the sun shone on during the day, over which Nitid glowed most nights, Ellai shadowy by her side. A place of peace, with a beautifully elaborate shrine to the sun in the centre of a maze built of coloured stones set into the field around it. That shrine was tended daily by a trio of seraphim who kept it pristine, brushing dust from the smooth stone of its altar daily. They dressed identically but simply, and walked softly and spoke gently, welcoming one and all. It was common for travellers to stop here on their journey, either to make an offering in return for a blessing for safe journey, or to give thanks for safe arrival.
By the waterside there stood a small temple to the bright sister. It was built of richly carved wood and decorated with finely embroidered wall hangings and soft carpets with magnificent intricate patterns that showed the history of the world. This temple was tended by chimaera, also a trio, but drawn from different races. They stayed silent as they worked, always sewing or weaving. But their smiles at visitors were generous and everyone knew himself welcomed who entered there. Many joined them for evensong at dusk and contributed to a communal meal. It was a happy place.
In the hills not far away stood an even smaller temple to the dark sister. No one appeared to serve here, yet the temple remained clear of debris, and fresh flowers could always be found on its altar – night-blooming primroses, nicotiana, and orchids. Despite its location high in the hills, with little shelter from the ever-constant breezes, the air in this temple was still. A visitor on first arriving might pant slightly from the exertion of his climb, but quickly his breathing would smooth as the peace of the place wrapped him in calm. One knew oneself very close to Ellai here and therefore also close to the darker sides of life, to the rigours of childbirth and the poisons of death.
By the mouth of the river there was a small town that had grown up around a natural deep harbour. A small fleet of fishing vessels ventured forth each day to catch mackerel that ran along the coast. Other, smaller, boats which clung close to shore set out empty crab pots one day and collected full the next. Boatbuilders earned a living repairing ships that arrived in port after lengthy voyages, or limped into port after a sudden storm at sea. There were victuallers who sold those ships provisions. And there were the usual dockside taverns that catered to transient visitors. Sometimes the town seemed so full of people it was bursting; more often it was a sleepy town eking out a bare existence. There were busier (richer) ports to the north and south. This little town was just a glorified fishing village.
Change came suddenly to this quiet corner of the kingdom. Astrae burned, and a flood of refugees, traumatised by what they had witnessed fled along the granite road, and congregated in the town as they anxiously waited for ships on which to book passage. These were neither the highest nor the lowest of Astrae, but the middle ranks. The highest had, for the most part, died swiftly, murdered by the slave uprising. Many of the lowest had also perished; chained as they were and so unable to flee quickly, they had burned in the conflagration set by the ringleaders. There had been too many to free all before the city was engulfed in flame. So, these arrivals were the middle ranks: the clerks and shopkeepers, the artisans. Those with enough wits about them to get out quickly (and sufficient portable wealth to bring with them to make a fresh start): seraph who had served and chimaera who had earned freedom for themselves and their offspring though loyalty.
They were followed in short order by seraphs, but not the kindly aesthetic angels who tended the sun god’s shrine. These were guards, hardened men in armour bearing arms, who shouted and threatened, bullying and rounding up refugees and townsfolk alike, and sorting them into groups: seraphs in one, chimaera women in another, chimera children and men into the last. The names of the first were taken down in a ledger before they were set free to go on their way. The last were herded into Nitid’s shrine, which was then locked and set on fire. The women, who had been chained first, watched and screamed while their kinfolk burned and tore at the irons that held them, trying fruitlessly to free themselves so they could run to their husbands’ and brothers’ and fathers’ and children’s rescue (or die with them). When Nitid’s shrine was mere ashes, the remaining chimaera were marched back down the stone roadway in the direction they had fled. They keened as they walked; but there was no fight left.
For several few months, the town was quiet again – too quiet. The seraphs who had been briefly rounded up lingered long enough to recover their equilibrium; but even those who had lived there all their lives were loath to remain in place where such things could happen. Most packed up and left, many on the next ship that docked. Only a small handful chose to stay. Several ships had been awaited before the soldiers’ visit, but apart from that one Stelian ship that had made port just two days after the soldiers, no ships docked; it was as if news of what had transpired here flew on the breeze, warning travellers not to alight here. Occasionally a solitary chimaera would come through bringing terrifying news of purges; he never stayed more than a day or two before moving on again.
No one remarked the day a rag-tag group of chimaera took over the disused customs house that dominated the quay, and the abandoned inn that stood next to it. An old sailor watched them settle in but he regularly sat on a bench opposite, smoking his pipe and gazing out to sea. The noise of their arrival had disturbed his reverie and he had turned around to look, and not looked away. As two females helped one injured ram down from a cart, he stumbled and fell, arms outstretched trying to catch himself. The stag-head leader roared and leapt to catch his friend before his head banged against the hard cobbles. They spoke in deep quiet voices that the sailor could not quite hear, before the ram struggled to his feet with a determination marvellous to behold, and left the group, limping across the street before he sat down heavily on the bench.
“Good harbour?” he asked.
“I’ve always liked it,” replied the sailor.
The sailor nodded, “and sheltered - see those headlands to the west?”
“They take the brunt of any storm. And we are northerly enough for temperate weather and southerly enough not to freeze up in winter.”
“And small enough to avoid notice, for a time at least.”
The sailor’s eyes and mouth creased in a smile but he said nothing, just knocked out the ash from his pipe and refilled it.
“What’s the name of this paragon of a port?” asked Brimstone softly.