In Remetia, to the north of Askaria, in the third year since the ratification of the Great Unification Decree, a council of clerics and paladins of Devara was held in secret to determine the best course of action to take against increasing pressure from the Askarian crown. The small city of Remetia had been long loyal to the creed of Devara and the old gods. In Remetia, the Great Unification Decree was viewed as nothing more than an attempt to usurp the faith and loyalty of Askaria's subjects. Word had reached Remetia that an envoy of Askarian nobles, accompanied by at least three score of armored guardsment, pikemen, and arbalesters, would soon be approaching the small city. The city's holy warriors numbered 29 battle-ready paladins and 33 clerics. The goal of the envoy was known: they would rededicate places of worship in Remetia to The Three, relocate images and shrines of Devara to pre-approved locations in the city's periphery, and disarm any paladins of Devara who did not wish to take the oath of the new gods.
And so the council of clerics and paladins of Devara discussed their options. Kneeling to the Askarian crown was out of the question. Fighting the envoy could doom the city. But Liven to the north had resisted the Askarian Great Unification Decree, so it was decided: those loyal to Devara – paladins, clerics, and Peasants – would embark on a pilgrimage to Liven. The lord of Remetia had already kneeled to the Askarian crown, and his guardsmen were loyal to King Ericho IV, descendent of Ericho the Austere, as well. The Pilgrimage of those loyal to Devara would have to occur in secret. Remetians loyal to Devara spread news of the Pilgrimage in secret. One would use his foot to make an arc in the sand. If the other was loyal, he would likewise make an arc, completing a circle, the sign of the sun, the greatest source of light. And so news of the pilgrimage spread.
Three nights after the council, those loyal to Devara assembled in the night to make pilgrimage to Liven in secret. Among them were 20 paladins, 33 clerics, 716 peasants, and two nobles, now stripped of title: former Baron Erodan of Sylben and former Baroness Emiella of Orange. With supplies and stocks for 7 days' journey accounted for, the group vanished into the moonlit night. They had embarked on what would be known as the Pencen Pilgrimage.
Mina was a Birian paladin in the lead of the pack of nearly 800 men, women and children that would be known as the Pencen Pilgrimage. Flanked by the cleric Doramin Tolls, her close friend, she had marched for a night and half a day north. She was hot under her heavy mail and thick surcoat, and the shade didn't seem to do enough to stifle the hot summer sun, but her training had given her the discipline to endure far worse. Doramin Tolls was not hiding his discomfort quite as easily. Wiping sweat from his brow, he smiled at Mina. “We'll make camp at sundown, yeah?” he asked. “We'll have to.” she replied. “The peasantry are on their last legs. But the more distance we can make, the better.” Doramin nodded. The sun would set soon, and Mina and Doramin, leading the pack, would have to scout out a perimeter to accommodate a camp of nearly 800 people.
Doramin whistled a signal to the paladins further down the line, then they both set off into the woods. The woods between Liven and Remetia were filled with dangerous beasts and marauding tribes, but Mina was more concerned with Askarian scouts. They had broken no laws by setting out in pilgrimage, but the cruel King Ericho IV, whom they mockingly called Ericho the Envy-Ridden, would not think twice about slaughtering the lot of them from spite. Passing around a rocky ledge, Mina first heard footsteps, then the crisp sound of plate. It was as she feared: Askarian scouts were pursing them. But how many? And to what end? She signalled to Doramin, and both froze in their tracks. And what she spied ahead chilled her to the bone.
Beyond the rocky ledge were four knights of the Askarian elite combat squadron: the Night Raiders. They each wore a black cloak over heavy plate and wielded a sharpened spatha. On each of their backs was a silver shield bearing the crest of the new gods. The two stood motionless behind the rocky ledge. Mina's face burned with fury, and Doramin's eyes pleaded that she stay still. They were outnumbered and outmatched. But the righteous fire of a paladin is a difficult thing to quench.
Mina charged. It was four to two, and Doramin was no match for an armored knight, but Mina had the divine light of Devara at her back. She charged shield-first into the first Night Raider, sending him stumbling off balance, his blade flailing to the side. She put her full weight into driving her spiked mace into the Night Raider's face. It connected with a sick crunch of metal and bone, lodging itself in the eye slits of the Night Raider's helm. Whispering words of faith, Mina felt a peace as Devara's divine light filled her weapon until it reached a hotly glowing crescendo, turning the Night Raider's helm into a scene of carnage that far too closely resembled a kicked pot of burnt tomato soup. “He died for a false god,” she said angrily, unflinchingly. Her composure was more ironclad than the knight whose head she had just reduced to red paste. “Doramin. Armor” The cleric spoke words of faith, and Mina's paladin's plate began to glow.
The first Night Raider reached her before the other two, but he'd mistimed his approach. Her glowing spiked mace, blessed with Devara's eternal fury, crashed across his left temple, sending him sprawling into the leaves, a trickle of blood falling from his deeply dented helm. The next two were more careful, attempting to flank Mina. But it was now a matched fight, and Mina had already dispatched two of them. She retreated, deftly raising her shield to deflect blows form the two assailants, waiting for an opening. The blades of the Night Raiders pounded at her shield, slashed at her surcoat, dented on her mail and plate, cut through her leather. But the protection of Devara held, making scrapes and bruises of what would have been deep cuts and broken bones.
At last, a Night Raider overreached, giving her just enough room to maneuver. She slammed her mace, glowing with divine vengeance, down on his outstretched sword arm. He fell back in a shower of sparks, grunting with the blow, then wailing in surprise. His couter was crushed, his vambrace-clad forearm bent the wrong way from his elbow at a nearly right angle. Mina swung her mace backhanded toward the iron helm of the last Night Raider standing, but he shifted to bring up his abomination-crested shield, deflecting her blow in a furious shower of sparks, using the staggering momentum to thrust his own blade through her chest. To his astonishment, she stood her ground, and though impaled in the chest, she fought with the rage of a thousand spurred old gods, hammering at his helm, then at what was left of his helm, until the ironclad knight's head was nothing more than a smoking bowl of pulp.
The last Night Raider, elbow crushed to splinters within ruined plate couter, charged Mina, spatha in his shield hand. But he had not practiced offhand combat, and his blade pathetically bounced off Mina's left pauldron. Mina swung her mace at the crippled knight as he pitched past her, connecting with the back of his helm. He fell limply forward, collapsing in the leaves. The light left Mina's mace. She fell to a knee and coughed a fine cloud of blood. “Take the blade,” she croaked to Doramin, who had dumbly watched the skirmish unfold. Speaking words of faith, Doramin braced his foot against Mina's pauldron. A warm light descended upon the two. “Now,” she wheezed. He pulled with all of his might, and the blade wrest free of her chest. The wound sprayed blood for the barest moment, and then it was gone.
Mina sucked in air. Doramin Tolls moved to help the paladin to her feet, but she stood of her own strength before he knew it, as if a blade had not just pierced and been pulled from her lung mere moments ago. “Armor will need repair,” she said quietly. The rest may have been in danger still. Quickly, they moved back toward the main path. If Night Raiders were in this part of the woods, they were probably on the hunt elsewhere as well.
Mina and Doramin returned to the path to find the group in disarray. Men, women and children were running north, faces masks of fear, with some worried looking paladins and clerics among them, while other paladins and clerics hurriedly headed toward a crowd that was forming to the south. In the crowd were banners to the new gods. Mina and Doramin ran toward the banners. Their worse fears had been realized. An envoy of Askarian foot soldiers had rounded up dozens of peasants. The periphery of the crowd was littered with the arrow-ridden bodies of those that had fled, and ranks of arbalesters kept close watch on any who might have had the same idea. The remaining paladins formed a protective shield around the clerics, separated from the peasantry by rows of footsoldiers, threatened by arbalesters.
From behind the Askarian ranks, a mounted noble approached. “This has gone long enough” he said in common, voice full of sneering contempt. The Askarian noble sat straight in his saddle, clad in shimmering gold-trimmed plate, a smirking picture of smugness. “We've come to collect in the name of Ericho IV, descendent of the true king.” An aged cleric emerged from the paladin phalanx. Mina knew the woman simply as Bel. “Collect what?” Bel demanded. The noble cleared his throat. “It has been ordered by King Ericho IV, heir of the Askarian crown, descendent of the true-” Bel cut him off. “Get on with it, boy.” For a moment, the noble's face registered shock. But the privileged pomp of an Askarian noble quickly crept back over it. “We require the two nobles among you,” he declared, “And your steel.”
From the crowd, Erodan of Sylven and Emiella of Orange looked up in astonishment. The crown had already stripped them of their titles when they refused to kneel to the new gods. But before they could react, Bel responded. “Out of the question,” she said. Bel calmly strode toward the mounted noble, through the line of confused guards. She was a woman of nearly 80, gray and bowed with age, and the Askarian troops looked to their captain, who in turn looked to the noble. His expression was one of frozen fear. Should he have her beheaded for insubordination? Grannyslayer, they'd call him. Cowed by Crones. “All followers of the true goddess are free to follow her,” she said. Her eyes rolled back in her head. She continued toward the noble. “All followers-” she started, but in that moment an arbalest bolt streaked through the air, piercing her in the back. Two more followed striking next to the first. She fell to the ground.
“The flame absolves you,” she croaked. In a flash, a brilliant column of light erupted from where she fell, extending endlessly into the clouds, expanding in heat and light and thundrous sound. Bodies, arbalests, swords, shields, helm and debris were sent scattering from the blast. Mina lowered her shield. The fire had vanished, and the dust was clearing. The body of Bel lay motionless in the center of the scene, unscathed save for the bolts in her back. A starburst of ash, debris, and charred, still bodies, footmen and peasants alike, extended out from where she lay.
Mina charged the remaining opposition, flanked by her fellow warriors of Devara. Most of the Arbalesters had already loosed their bolts in the confusion and were now struggling to reload their weapons, and to a man they were mercilessly crushed under the paladins' spiked maces. Other paladins and clerics had engaged the remaining Askarian footmen, pitting mace against sword, old gods against new. Mina's mace crashed through helm after helm as the battlefield around her exploded with the clerics' glowing flashes of divine light.
The last Askarian fell to a crushing blow from Wen, a heavily scarred, black-bearded paladin. The others began to survey the scene. Mina gasped: some of the peasants that had been knocked prone by the blast had begun to stir. Wiping dust and ash from their brows, one by one the peasants began to rise. Devara had shielded her loyal followers from the blinding column of divine vengeance, and the worst any of them suffered were some bruised bottoms and singed beards.
But Bel would return to the sea. Her aged body riddled with arrows, she was taken by Devara before anyone could reach her. Perhaps she'd spent the last of her will saving the pilgrims. They said rites and buried all of the bodies: friend and foe alike. Aside from Bel, 4 paladins, 7 clerics, and 24 peasants had been wounded too gravely to heal. Their foes' bodies numbered far more, but the Pencen Pilgrimage's numbers of fighters was quickly dwindling, while the Askarian army was virtually limitless. Shaken but not broken, the pilgrimage resumed.
They reached the Askaria-Liven border in two more days' march, where a Liveni scout regiment was able to provide them safe passage to Liven. The Pencen Pilgrimage was over, but the war was not. Mina and Doramin, along with every last battle-ready paladin and cleric from the pilgrimage, pledged fealty to the Queen of Liven, taking up the Queen's crest: a tree growing from an earthen vessel.
- The Pencen Pilgrimage S. 1-56