Ursus looked up and watched a lone gull battling against the wind before he brushed the sand from his robes and got to his feet. It had been a long night awake, meditating on the ocean before him and his eyes burned with fatigue. He adjusted the belt on his robe and picked up his staff, leaning on it as he walked towards the water.
He turned and saw the three men, climbing down from their horses, the clink of chainmail coming to his ears as a crisp ringing which made him turn and face them. He smiled and opened his arms without letting go of his staff.
‘Can a simple pariunt not enjoy communing with nature?’ he said.
The soldiers looked at one another. The Cradle had been independent of the ruling families since their inception, men and women trained in physical and mental disciplines who fought against the forces which besieged humanity and inspired a fierce goodwill in the people of the kingdom. In these times though, there were rumours spread to undermine their authority and these poison whispers gave King Patrick permission to drive any of them from his lands. Lone pariunts were easy targets for anyone with a grudge or an order.
Ursus Senex sighed as the soldiers came towards him.
One of them snarled, showing brown, uneven teeth as his moustaches dripped with saliva as he pointed at Ursus.
‘You’re forbidden from these lands, pariunt.’ he said.
The second man had his hand on the hilt of his sword and Ursus smiled at him as he glanced at the third man, who held a short bow ahead of him, an arrow cocked and ready to fire.
‘The ocean is the source of all life, my good man. We wander the lands and commune with life in all its forms. Let me commune here, and I shall leave no trace of my passing.’ he said.
Ursus had a low, soft voice. He sounded reasonable, unafraid to stand before three armed men with intentions towards him. Ursus knew a show of fear would end with a blade or an arrow in him so he affected an air of humility towards these men.
Behind his eyes, he gauged the possible lines of attack and how best to break them. The clarity of his thoughts were part of his Cradle training and Ursus was a pariunt of long standing. Magic would see an arrow in his throat before he uttered a word. He put his staff into the sand and drew a straight line then without taking his eyes from the men, drew lines in three directions and stamped a divot of sand into the end of each line.
They did not see his work as they stood there, torn between apprehension and aggression. Ursus stepped backwards and stared at each man in turn.
‘I point out you wanted this to happen.’ he said.
The archer brought up his bow and fired in one fluid motion as Ursus took his staff in both hands and pointed it towards the archer.
The men watched in surprise as the arrow splintered and fell to the ground, having hit nothing but air. The two men charged Ursus, drawing their swords as they yelled their fears out of them.
Brown Teeth stopped as he ran over the sigil. Blood shot from his nostrils and ears as he fell over, choking on his tongue as it slipped to the back of his throat. His sword fell from his fingers as he twitched and choked out his last breath.
Ursus jabbed the staff into the centre of the second man’s face as he came forward. The wet crunch of his nose breaking made Ursus swallow with distaste but not so much that it stopped him from kicking the man’s legs out from under him and drive his staff into the flesh of his throat hard enough to break it.
The second arrow whistled past him and Ursus threw his staff at the archer as it hit the man in the cheek, upsetting his third shot. Ursus closed the distance and drove the fingers of his right hand into the soldier’s armpit and threw his palm up into the soldier’s face. He felt the cartilage shift as it drove his nose into his brain. The archer fell away and landed on his side with an ungainly thump onto the sand.
Ursus leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees. His throat burned with each breath and he trembled as he breathed through the nerves of combat.
Not combat, he thought, murder. They had acted first, but it did not lessen the impact of their deaths on his conscience.
He looked up at the sky, grateful to be alive.
If they had bested him, it might have undone everything.
A pariunt had gathered at each point of the compass. Ursus stood at Irident, the most southerly point in King Patrick’s domain.
Catherine was shivering through a vigil at Hunter’s Point in the North, waiting for the appointed time.
Justin stood at the most easterly point: an outcrop of sand on The Poison Shore, his face wrapped in soaked muslin as he chanted a mantra to ward off the worst of the fumes.
Miriam laid on the western shores of Apara and summoned the vultures above her to form his own sigil.
Ursus staggered to the water and traced a sign in the air.
Four points of will, each of them performing an act of meditation, linking their wills to one single end, and drawing sigils of their own to strengthen the power of their intention.
If you were to look from above, you would see the scar of their actions burned into the land like a brand.
Ursus breathed in, tingling with power as he stepped out onto the water. His steps held as he walked out.
His role was the most difficult, for he had to call upon a fifth pariunt.
Eleanor, lost beneath the waves, asleep and waiting to be called. She had been the most vocal of the voices within The Cradle, calling for a state of preparedness against the day when the kings saw them as a threat over an ally. Ursus, her lover and counsel, had urged her against the course and she had taken a ship to discuss alliances with The Caliphate. A storm had dashed her ship to pieces, and Ursus, asleep in the bed they shared, awoke and howled with grief.
Over the roar of the waves, he listened to her heartbeat. He paid attention as he stood at the point where the feelings were strongest. He looked down into the water and called her name.
The ocean bucked beneath him, as it gave her up.
She shot out of the water, waterlogged hair falling down her back in a shining curtain, festooned with seaweed and shells. A crab hung from her robes as she returned to the surface of the water and smiled at Ursus. Her skin was white and soft as he smiled at her.
‘If I say you were right, will it be the end of it?’ he said.
She chuckled and kissed him on the cheek.
‘Oh Ursus, you worry too much. Why did you wait to call me back?’ she said.
He gestured behind him.
‘It took four of us to summon your location. I searched for you, and found nothing but you hid yourself.’ he said.
She reached for him and kissed him on the lips as she shook her head.
‘They used a spell singer on me, lashed me to ocean’s floor with wards of great power and made me watch you grow older, made me watch the Cradle beseiged by enemies at every turn.’ she said.
Ursus wrapped her in his arms and kissed her over and over until she put her hands to his chest and pushed him away. For all his power and focus, he was quite the romantic when called for.
She took his hands and stared into his eyes.
‘Let us call the others and end this.’ she said.
They chanted together, staring into one another’s eyes as they stepped backwards, into the position where the lines of energy laid, connecting what was real with what was imagined.
As one, the five of them focused their energies into the single image shared amongst them creating a ward over the land.
King Patrick was atop his mistress, enjoying the frightened look in her eyes as he felt a small twinge in his back. He frowned and stopped fucking his mistress as a sudden pressure ballooned in his skull and his eyes rolled back in his head. He had a vision of the sigil float before his eyes before he collapsed onto the bed and let out a sonorous, single note fart.
His counsellor, David, clutched at his head and fell onto his knees as the council of spies and soldiers devoted to the murder of The Cradle followed suit. They were found, bloodied and lifeless, faces sculptured into final expressions of disbelief.
Ursus and Eleanor walked back to the shore. He took her hand in his and smiled at her with a quiet disbelief.
‘Is it done?’ she said.
Ursus looked at the sky and watched the gull flying around, cawing with the savage joy of existence before he pulled her close and brushed seaweed from his lover’s hair.
‘I hope so.’ he said.
He felt the mixture of relief and invigoration from his fellow pariunts as they left their positions. The Cradle had protected itself, and all the loss came down to a few bad men, buried in the places they had plotted murder from.
He nodded and gestured to the gull flying above them.
‘I watched him earlier, and it gave me hope.’ he said.
Eleanor chuckled and rested her head on his shoulder.
‘You’re such a romantic, trusting to fate.’ she said.
Ursus chuckled as they walked on the sand, leaning into one another as they carried on into the rest of their lives, holding the light of their love above them to guard the way.