Year 1598 of the New Calendar
It was shortly after nine when the coach slowed to a halt. Bethia looked at Brother Howell, who was sitting opposite, and asked, “Are we there?”
“Not quite,” he replied with a smile, “we haven’t even made it through the city gates yet.”
“Then why have we stopped?” Bethia asked, leaning across her father to try and see out of the window.
“There’s always a queue to get into the city on Midsummer’s Eve,” the elderly lady sitting next to Brother Howell said. “I take it this is your first time?”
“Mm-hmm” Bethia replied, her head and shoulders now leaning precariously out of the window. “We’re never going to get there on time!” she exclaimed, as she counted the coaches ahead of them.
“Bethia, please,” her father said, pulling her back to her seat. “Patience never was one of her virtues,” he added, causing Brother Howell to guffaw with laughter.
“And I’m sure her Guardian will have some interesting times trying to instil it in her,” he said, with a chuckle.
“Oh, you’re here to join the Brethren, are you?” the lady asked. “How lovely.” She smiled at Bethia. “My son is in the King’s Guard, they welcome new recruits today too.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Brother Howell asked.
“Yes, it’s one of the few times I get to see my son these days,” she said sadly. “His unit patrols the highlands, and you know how much conflict there has been there in recent years. I worry about him so much.”
“I’m sure you do,” Brother Howell said, resting his hand gently on the lady’s arm. “We all miss our family when they are away from us, but especially when they are in Service of some kind.”
“I’m going to miss this one, more than I can say,” Bethia’s father said, squeezing her tightly.
“Oh, but she’ll be living here in the City for at least the next three years,” the lady said, looking confused. “You’ll be able to visit her from time to time, won’t you?”
Bethia felt her dad’s arm around her stiffen momentarily, and she knew that it had hit a raw nerve.
“Actually,” Brother Howell began, sensing the same discomfort, “we are from a small village near the Western Pass. It has taken us three days to get here, and will take us another three days to return. That kind of journey simply isn’t possible other than for major occasions such as Bethia’s Dedication.”
“Oh I see,” the lady said, her eyes flitting between Bethia and her father. “I am sorry, that must be very hard.”
“We had hoped that she may be offered a place at one of the smaller Abbeys closer to Terran,” her father said quietly. “But it was not to be.”
“Entrants are allocated places based upon their natural skills and interests,” Brother Howell explained, “and it was agreed that Straith Abbey would provide Bethia with the best opportunities to reach her potential. Even though that means being far from home.” He smiled at Bethia. “And whilst I am sure Bethia will find it a challenge, she has never been one to be easily defeated.”
This time it was her father’s turn to laugh. “Now that is an understatement,” he said, causing Bethia to feign offense by crossing her arms and glaring at them both. The effect, however, just seemed to deepen their point and made them laugh even more.
“Morning, Deaglan. You just heading to the market, are you?” Bethia leapt up and poked her head out the window to see what was going on. To her surprise, they had already reached the city gates, and a member of the King’s Guard was talking to the coach driver.
“Not today, Captain. I’ve also got three for the Abbey and one for the Guard too.”
“Right, in that case I suggest you head to the Abbey first.” A couple of the other passengers groaned at the news, and Bethia heard one of the mutter under his breath about ‘the bloody Brethren’.
“Hush now,” the elderly lady rebuked him. “You’ll get to the market just as quickly this way as if we took the Main Road – that route will be backed up for hours.”
The other man grumbled again under his breath, this time about interfering old ladies, but said no more.
“Some people just like to complain,” the lady said, smiling at Bethia. “Don’t you worry, my dear. We’ll be at the Abbey in no time now.”
“You might like to switch places with your pa so you can look out the window,” Brother Howell said, motioning for her to look out of the window. “We won’t see much of the city, but you’ll never forget that first glimpse of the Abbey.”
Bethia didn’t need telling twice. She’d always known she wanted to join the Brethren, and now that the day had finally arrived she didn’t want to miss a thing.
She realised Brother Howell was right; the coach had turned onto a smaller road, lined with trees. The buildings had changed from the shops and inns she had spotted upon first entering the city, and were now clearly places of residence. Not that they looked like the homes she was used to. In Terran, most people lived in small buildings with just a couple of rooms; these buildings looked large enough to house half the village each. Most of them were at least two storeys high, and had large windows and balconies that spanned the whole of each floor. And some of them bore shields in colours so bold you could hardly ignore them. Confused, Bethia turned back to look at Brother Howell.
“What do the colours on the houses mean?”
“They are the crests of the oldest and most important families in the city. Some are relatives of the King and his family; those always bear the gold crown and sceptre somewhere within the crest to signal this royal lineage. Others bear the purple of the King’s Guard, whilst those painted red are the homes of the King’s Advisors.”
Bethia looked back out of the window and noted the different colours he had mentioned, trying to imagine who the men and women were that lived in such houses. How very different their lives must be to those of her family and friends back home. Then she noticed a house that bore a crest painted blue.
“What does the colour blue stand for?”
“Some of the sailors and merchants in the city disliked the distinction that the crests made between themselves and the richer families. They chose to create their own crests; blue for sailors, and yellow for merchants.”
“Aye, we’re just as important as the Higher Families,” one of the other passengers said.
“And it makes them seethe,” said another, causing a round of laughter.
“Anything to stop them thinking too highly of themselves, eh Kellen?” the first cheered, clapping his mate around the shoulders.
“Seems like things aren’t all that different here, after all,” Bethia’s father whispered in her ear. “They sound just like Old Marcan back home.”
Bethia smiled as she thought of the old stalwart of Terran. The villagers often travelled to surrounding Market Towns to trade surplus crops for supplies they could not make or grow themselves. Some of the citizens thought themselves above the villagers, believing that town life gave them a certain advantage over those who lived and worked the land. Most of the villagers simply let them believe it, but Old Marcan believed in bringing them down a peg or two once in a while.
“Will we have much contact with the higher families?” Bethia asked, suddenly aware that comparing Marcan to the passengers in the coach was like comparing a stone with a boulder. If the citizens of the small Market Towns had looked down on the villagers, what would these Higher Families, that felt superior to merchants and sailors, think of a girl from Terran?
“Not to begin with,” Brother Howell explained. “They dislike the disruption and uncertainty that can come with the initial period in which newer members of the Brethren get used to their power. Their financial contributions to the running of the Abbey ensure that the most powerful healers, teachers and carers are sent to serve them.”
“But why should money make any difference,” she asked, “I thought the Brethren treated all people equally?”
“They do. But you must remember that the Brethren cannot survive on power and goodwill alone. We need money as much as anyone else so that we can travel to those in need and serve those who cannot afford our care. By agreeing to always send our best to those who expect it, we can ensure that we have enough funding to help those further afield too.”
He looked at her fondly, “I know this all very different for you, Bethia, and there is a lot for you to get used to. But trust me, you’ll come to understand how it all works just as much as those who have lived their entire lives in larger towns and cities, I promise.”
She turned to look back out of the window, unsure of what to say, and realised that the coach had turned onto a smaller road and that the houses were becoming sparser as they headed towards what looked like a wooded area. Intrigued, she watched as the brick buildings were replaced with more familiar surroundings: oak, beech and yew trees. She let out a little sigh, knowing that if there were places like this to escape to she’d be able to face anything.
“Ah, these are the grounds of the Abbey”, Brother Howell said. “The Abbey makes up approximately a fifth of the city, with extensive grounds occupying a large part of the western quarter. The only place larger is the Palace to the North.”
“What about the rest of the city?” Bethia asked
“Well, the Kings Guard live in Barracks next to the Palace, and then there is a large port to the East. The centre of the city is occupied by a large marketplace, where people come to trade from throughout Inness and the neighbouring lands. And, as you’ve just seen, many of the richer families live to the West, where it is less crowded.”
“What about…” Bethia began.
“Ah, no more questions,” Brother Howell interrupted her, “we are approaching the Abbey and you really don’t want to miss it.”
Bethia turned to look out of the window once more and saw a large stone building as the coach turned a bend in the road. She could only see a small corner of the building, as the rest was obscured by the trees surrounding it, but it was still an impressive sight. Huge sand-coloured bricks formed walls that stood higher than the tops of the largest oak trees, broken only by the large windows. These were filled with coloured glass that no doubt created beautiful images when the sun shone through but were impossible to decipher from the outside.
“It’s massive”, she breathed.
“It’s not all quite so large and impressive”, Brother Howell reassured her. “This is the chapel, built to honour the gifts we are given by the Gods. You’ll find your own quarters much smaller and plainer in comparison”.
“I don’t mind,” Bethia said, distracted by the sheer size and magnificence of this part of the Abbey. The village church at home had always seemed large and impressive, with an open hall where the entire village could congregate at once. But compared to this, it seemed tiny and very plain indeed.
The coach continued past the chapel and followed the building around several bends before stopping in front of a large wooden door. Brother Howell stood up and opened the coach door, stepped down onto the path and turned to regard Bethia.
“Welcome to Straith Abbey.”