On the sixth day of the sixth tenner of every sixth small year, the Synod of the Church of the Formidable Peace met in Askitosh. The lesser fry met in conventials behind the Palace of the Supreme Priest. The fifteen dignitaries who formed the standing synod lived and met in the Palace itself. They represented both the ecclesiastical and the secular or military arms of the organisation of the Church. The burdens of office were heavy upon them. They were not men given to drollery.

Being human, the fifteen had their faults. One was regularly overcome by alcohol by sixteen twenty evenday. Others kept young female or male slaves in their chambers. Some enjoyed peculiar defilements. Nevertheless, at least a part of each of them was dedicated to the good continuance of the Church. Since good men were hard to find, the fifteen could be accounted good men.

And the most dedicated man of all was Chubsalid, a man of Bribahr birth, brought up by holy fathers within the cloisters of their church, now Priest-Supreme of the Church of the Formidable Peace, the appointed representative on Helliconia of God the Azoiaxic, who existed before life and round whom all life revolves.

Even the most watchful ecclesiastical eye had never seen Chubsalid raise a bottle to his lips. If he had any sexual proclivities whatsoever, they were a secret kept between him and his maker. If he ever experi- enced anger, fear, or sorrow, no shadows of those emotions ever reached his rosy face. And he was no fool.

Unlike the Oligarchy, whose meeting place on Icen Hill was not a mile away, the Synod had wide popular support. The Church genuinely ministered to the needs of its people; uplifted their hearts and supported them in adversity. And preserved tactful silence about pauk.

Unlike the Oligarch, who was never seen and whose image in the fearful popular imagination most resembled a huge crustacean with hyperactive nippers, Priest-Supreme Chubsalid travelled among the poor and was a popular visitor with his congregations. He looked every inch a Priest-Supreme, with his  large stature, craggy but kindly countenance, and mane of white hair. When he spoke, people wished to listen. His addresses were spun from piety and often fringed by wit: he could make his congregations laugh as well as pray.

The discussion at the synodical meetings was conducted in the highest Sibish, with multiple clauses, elaborate parentheses, and spectacular verb formations. But the matter on this occasion was strictly practical. It concerned the strained relationship between the two great estates of Sibornal, the State and the Church.

The Church watched with alarm as the edicts of the Oligarchy increased in severity. One of the synodic priesthood was speaking to the assembly on this subject.

“The new Restrictions of Persons in Abodes Act and similar regulations are/continue represented by  the State as a move to curtail the plague. Already they are causing as much disruption as the plague does/ will/can. The poor are evicted and arrested for vagrancy, or else perish from the increasing cold.”

He was a silvery man and spoke in a silvery voice, but its conviction carried to the end of the room. “We can see the political thinking behind this iniquitous Act. As more northerly farms fail/failing, the peasants and small farmers who worked those farms drift into town, where they must find shelter where they can, generally in overcrowded conditions. The Act seeks to confine them to their failed farms. There they will starve. I hope I am not unduly uncharitable when I say that their deaths would suit the State well. The dead never talk politics.”

“You foresee a revolt starting in the towns if the Act were repealed?” asked a voice from the other end of the table.

“In my youth, it was said that a Sibornalese worked for life, married for life, and longed for life,” replied the silvery voice. “But we never rebel. We leave that to the people of the Savage Continent. The Church has so far said nothing about these restrictive Acts. Now I suggest that we have reached a sticking point with the Act against pauk.”

“We have no policy on pauk.”

“Neither had the State till now. Again, the dead have no politics, and that the State has/continuous recognises. Nevertheless, the Oligarchy have now legislated against pauk. This causes/has/will further misery to our congregations for whom-if you will forg ive my saying so- pauk is as much a part of life as parturition.

“The poor are being unfairly punished to fit them for the coming winter. I move that the Church speaks out publicly against the recent actions of the State.”

An aged and bald man, completely lacking hair or colour, rose with the aid of two sticks and spoke.

“It may be as you say, brother. The Oligarchy may be tightening its grip. I suggest to you that it has to do so. Think of the future. All too soon, our descendants will be faced/facing three and a half centuries of the bitter Weyr-Winter. The Oligarchy reasons that the harshness of nature must be matched by the harshness of mankind.

“Let me remind you of that terrible Sibish oath which must not be spoken. It is regarded as a supreme blasphemy, and rightly. Yet it is admirable. Yes, admirable. I would not/admonitorily have it spoken in my diocese, yet I admire the defiance of it.”

He steadied himself. There were those who thought the venerable man was about to defile his lips with the oath. Instead, he took a different tack.

“In the Savage Continent of Campannlat, chaos descends with the cold. They have no overriding order  as we have. They crawl back to their caves. Sibornal survives intact. We will/shall/have perpetual survive  by organisation. That organisation has to tighten like an iron fist. Many have to die that the state will survive.

“Some of you have complained because all phagors are to be shot regardless. I say they are not human. Get rid of them. They have no souls. Shoot them. And shoot all that defend them. Shoot the farmers whose farms fail. This is no time for individual gestures. Individuality itself must soon/will be punished by death.”

In the silence, his sticks rattled like bones as he seated himself again.

A murmur of shock went round the room, but Priest-Supreme Chubsalid from his ermine-lined seat said mildly, “No doubt they make such speeches all the while on Icen Hill, but we must keep to our chosen profession, which involves/continuous tempering our dealings even with failed farmers with mercy. Our Church stands for the individual, for individual conscience, individual salvation, and our duty is to remind  our friends in the Oligarchy of this from time to time, so that the people are also clear in their minds on that point.

“The seasons may grow harsh. We do not have to imitate them, so that even in harshest times the essential teaching of the Church may/ will/must live. Otherwise there is no life in God. The State sees this time of crisis as one in which it must show its strength. The Church must do at least as much. Who here of the fifteen agrees that the Church should stand against the State?”

All of the fourteen he had addressed turned to mutter with their neighbours down the long table. They could guess the retribution which would follow the move advocated by their leader.

One of the number raised a gold-ringed hand and said, in a quavering voice, “Sire, the time may/potential come when we do indeed have to take the kind of stance you suggest. But for pauk? When we have carefully avoided for eons-when perhaps some doubt as to the legitimacy of challenging-when the myth of the Original Beholder opposes our...”

He left that theatrical thought unstated.

The youngest member of the Synod was a Priest-Chaplain named Parlingelteg, a delicate man, though  it was whispered that some of his activities were indelicate. He was never afraid to speak up, and he addressed his words directly to Chubsalid.

“That last miserable speech convinces me at least-and I imagine all of you-that we must stand against the State. Perhaps specifically on the issue of pauk. Let’s not pretend pauk isn’t real, or that the gossies don’t exist, just because they don’t fit with the Teaching.

“Why do you think the State has tried to forbid pauk? For one reason only. The State is guilty of genocide. It killed off thousands of men in Asperamanka’s army. The mothers of those sons thus slain  have communed with them after death. The gossies have spoken. Who here said the dead have no politics? That’s nonsense. Thousands of dead mouths cry out against the State and the murderous Oligarch. I support the Priest-Supreme. We must speak against Torkerkanzlag and have him thrown out of office.”

He blushed red to the roots of his fair hair, as several of his seniors applauded. The meeting broke up. Still they drew back from taking a decision. Had not Church and State always been inseparable? And to speak aloud of that massacre . . . They loved peace-some of them at all costs.

An hour’s break followed. It was too chilly to gooutdoors. They loitered in the heated withdrawing rooms while scouts served water or wine in porcelain cups. They talked among themselves. Perhaps there was a way of avoiding actual consultation; apart from what the gossies said, there was no real evidence, was there?

A bell rang. They reconvened. Chubsalid spoke privily to Parlingelteg and both looked solemn.

The debate was continuing when a liveried slave knocked and entered. He bowed low before the Priest-Supreme and handed him a note on a tray.

Chubsalid read the note, then sat for a moment with his elbow on the table before him and his hand touching his tall forehead. The talk died. All waited for him to speak.

“Brothers,” he said, looking round at them. “We have a visitor, an important witness. I propose to summon him before us. His words, I fancy, will carry more weight than would further discussion.” He gestured to the slave, who bowed and hurried from the room.

Another man entered the chamber. With deliberation, he turned and closed the doors behind him, only then advancing towards the table where the fifteen leaders of the Church sat. He was dressed in deep blue from head to foot; boots, breeches, shirt, jacket, cloak, all were blue; so was the hat he carried in his hand. Only his hair was white, although black remained over each temple. When the Synod had last seen him, his hair had been entirely black.

The white hair emphasised the size of his head. His straight brows, eyes, mouth, emphasised the anger that lurked like thunder there.

He bowed deeply to the Priest-Supreme and kissed his hand. He turned to salute the Synod.

“I thank you for giving me audience,” he said.

“Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka, we had been informed of your death in battle,” said Chubsalid. “We rejoice in the inaccuracy of our information.”

Asperamanka formed his lips into a chilling smile. “I all but died- but not in battle. The story of how I managed to reach Askitosh, almost alone of all my army, is an extraordinary one. I was shot in Chalce, on the very frontiers of our continent, I was captured by phagors, I escaped, I was lost in marshland-well, in brief, it is God’s miracle that I stand beforeyou now. God protected me, and sharpened me as an instrument of justice. For I come as proof of a crime of perfidy unequalled in the illustrious history of Sibornal.”

“Pray take a seat,” said the Priest-Supreme, motioning to a lackey. “We wait to hear what you have to tell us. You will prove a better informant than any gossie.”

As Asperamanka told his story of the ambush, of the withering fire directed by the Oligarch’s guard against his returning forces, as the full extent of what had happened was borne home to everyone, it became clear that Parlingelteg had spoken truly. The Church would have to confront the State. Otherwise, the Church became party to the massacre.

It took Asperamanka over an hour to unfold the whole story of the campaign and its betrayal. Finally he was silent. Silent only for a minute. Then he unexpectedly hid his face in his hands and burst into tears.

“The crime is mine too,” he cried. “I worked for the Oligarch. I fear the Oligarch. To me, Church and State were one and synonymous.”

“But no more,” said Chubsalid. He rose and rested his hand on Asperamanka’s shoulder. “Thank you for being God’s instrument and making our duty plain to us.

“The Oligarchy has had jurisdiction over humanity’s bodies, the Church over its souls. Now we must gird ourselves to assert the supremacy of the soul above the body. We must oppose the Oligarchy. Is it here so resolved?”

The fourteen members gave cries of assent. Sticks rattled under the table.

“Then it is unanimous.”

After more discussion, agreement was reached that the first move should be to send out a firmly worded Bill to all churches the length and breadth of the land. The Bill would declare that the Church de- fended the ancient practice of pauk, which it regarded as an essential freedom of every man and woman  in the realm. There was no evidence that the so-called gossies spoke other than Truth. The Church in no way accepted that the practice of pauk spread the Fat Death. Chubsalid set his name to the Bill.

“This is probably the most revolutionary Bill the Church has ever put out,” said the silvery voice. “I just want to state that fact. And by acknowledging pauk, are we not acknowledging also the Original Beholder? And are we not thus allowing heathen superstition into the Church?”

“The Bill makes no mention of the Original Beholder, brother,” said Parlingelteg softly.

The Bill was approved and sent to the ecclesiastical printer. From the printer it went out to all the churches in the land.

Four days passed. In the Palace of the Priest-Supreme, churchmen waited for the storm to break.

A messenger, clad in oilskins against the weather, came down from Icen Hill and delivered a sealed document at the Palace.

The Priest-Supreme broke the seal and read the message.

The message said that subversive pamphlets put out by the Synod preached treason, in that they set out deliberately to flout recent Acts promulgated by the State. Treason was punishable by death.

If there was an explanation for these vile offences, then the Priest-Supreme of the Church of the Formidable Peace should present himself before the Oligarch forthwith, and deliver it in person.

The letter was signed with the signature of Torkerkanzleg II.

“I do not believe that man exists,” Chubsalid said. “He has reigned for over thirty years. Nobody has ever seen him. No portrait exists of his face. He could be a phagor for all we know to the contrary . . .”

He continued for a while in this vein, tut-tutting absently, and visiting the Synod library to compare signatures, toying with magnifying glasses and shaking his head.

This activity made the Priest-Supreme’s advisors nervous; they felt he should be concentrating on the gravity of a summons which, on the face of it at least, appeared to be his death warrant. Senior advisors, speaking among themselves, suggested that the entire centre of the Church should move immediately from Askitosh to a safer place- possibly to Rattagon, although it was under siege, since its position in the middle of a lake rendered it secure; or even to Kharnabhar, despite its extreme climate, since it was a religious refuge.

But Chubsalid had his own ideas. Retreat never entered his mind. After an hour of pottering about comparing signatures, he announced that he would meet the Oligarch. An acceptance note was written by  his scribe to that effect. It suggested that the meeting should be in the great entrance hall of Icen Castle,  and that anyone who wished might come there and hear the debate between the two men.

As Chubsalid appended his name to the document, Priest-Chaplain Parlingelteg, who was standing nearby, came forward and knelt by the Priest-Supreme’s chair.

“Sire, when you go to that place, permit me to accompany you. Whatever there befalls you, let it also befall me.”

Chubsalid set his hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“It shall be as you suggest. I shall be grateful for your presence.”

He turned then to Asperamanka, who was also in the company.


“And you, our Priest-Militant, will you also come to Icen Castle, to bear witness to the Oligarch’s crime?”

Asperamanka looked here and there, as if seeking out an invisible door. “You speak better than I, Priest-Supreme. I think it unwise to bring up the subject of the plague. We have no cure for the Fat Death, any more than the State. The Oligarch may have reasons we know nothing of for wishing to suppress pauk.”

“Then we will hear them. You will come with Parlingelteg and me?”

“Perhaps we should take doctors with us.”

Chubsalid smiled. “We shall be able to stand against him, I trust, without the aid of doctors.”

“Surely we ought to try and compromise,” said Asperamanka, looking wretched.

“We shall see if that is possible,” said Chubsalid. “And thank you for saying you will accompany us.”

The day dawned. Priest-Supreme Chubsalid put on his ecclesiastical robes and bade good-bye to his colleagues. One or two he embraced.

The silvery man shed a tear.

Chubsalid smiled at him. “Whatever happens this day, I will require your courage as well as mine.” His voice was firm and serene.

He climbed into his carriage, where Asperamanka and Parlingelteg waited. The carriage moved off.

It made its way through silent streets. The police, at the Oligarch’s command, had cleared onlookers away, so that there was none of the cheering which usually greeted the appearance of the Priest- Supreme. Only silence.

As the carriage ground its way up the treacherous paving stones of Icen Hill, the presence of soldiery was all too noticeable. At the gates of the castle, armed men stepped forward and fended off those priests who had followed behind their leader’s carriage. The carriage passed under the ponderous stone arch. The great iron gates closed behind it.

Many windows looked down on the front courtyard, enforcing silence with their oppressive dead shine. They were mean windows, less like eyes than blunt teeth.

The party of three was led unceremoniously from the carriage into the chill of the building. Their footsteps echoed as they traversed the great entrance hall. Soldiers in elaborate national uniform stood on guard. None moved.

The party was shown to the rear, to a dingy passage where the skirting was scuffed by innumerable boots, as if a tormented animal had tried to fight its way to freedom. After a wait, a signal was given their guide and they ascended by a narrow wooden stair which wound up two flights without a window by way of punctuation. They emerged into another passage, no more congenial to tormented animals than the first, and halted at a door. The guide knocked.

A voice bade them enter.

They came into a room which displayed all the festive cheer for which the Oligarchy was noted. It was  a reception room of a kind, lined with chairs on which only the most emaciated anatomies could have found rest. The one window in the room was draped in heavy leather curtains, evidently designed to be capable of repelling the onslaughts of daylight.

The niggardly proportions of the room, in which the height of the ceiling was matched only by the depth of gloom it engendered, was reinforced by its lighting. One fat viridian candle burned in a tall stand in the middle of the otherwise empty floor. A chilling draught caused its shadows to stir wakefully on the creaking parquet.

“How long do we wait here?” Chubsalid enquired of the guide.

“A short while, sire.”

Short whiles were of long duration in such a room, but eventually inner doors opened. Two uniformed men with swords dragged the doors apart, allowing the party to view a further room.

This further room was lit by gas flares, which imparted a sickly light over everything but the face of a man sitting berobed in a large chair at the far end of the room. Since the gas lights were behind his throne, his face was cast into shadow. The man made no movement.

Chubsalid said in a clear voice, “I am Priest-Supreme Chubsalid of the Church of the Formidable Peace. Who are you?”

And an equally clear voice came back. “You address me as the Oligarch.”

The visiting party, although they had prepared themselves for the encounter, were silenced by a momentary awe. They shuffled forward to the door of the inner chamber, where soldiers barred their way with naked swords.

“Are you Torkerkanzlag II?” asked Chubsalid.

Again the clear voice. “Address me as the Oligarch.”

Chubsalid and Asperamanka looked at each other. Then the former spoke out.

“We have come here, Dread Oligarch, to discuss the curtailment of traditional liberties in our state, and to speak with you regarding a recent crime committed-“

The clear voice cut in. “You have come here to discuss nothing, priest. You have come here to speak of nothing. You have come here because you preached treason, in deliberate defiance of recent edicts issued by the State. You have come here because the punishment for treason is death.”

“On the contrary,” said Parlingelteg. “We came here anticipating reason, justice, and an open debate. Not some sort of tawdry melo-dramatics.”

Asperamanka set his chest against one of the drawn swords and said, “Dread Oligarch, I have served you faithfully. I am Priest-Militant Asperamanka, who, as no doubt you know, led your armies to victor}’ in the field against the thousand heathen cults of Pannoval. Did you not- were not those armies destroyed on their return to your domains?”

The unmoved voice of the Oligarch said, “In the presence of your ruler, you do not ask questions.”

“Tell us who you are,” said Parlingelteg. “If you are human you give no evidence of it.”

Ignoring the interruption, Torkerkanzlag II gave the guard an order: “Draw back the window curtain.”

The guide who had led the three into the stifling chamber creaked his way across the floor and grasped the leather curtain with both hands. Slowly, he pulled the curtain back from the long window.

Grey light filtered into the room. While the other two turned to see out, Chubsalid looked back towards the Oligarch. Some of the light filtered even to where he sat motionless on his shadowed throne; some- thing of his features was revealed.

“I recognise you! Why, you’re-“ But the Priest-Supreme got no further, for one of the soldiers grasped him unceremoniously by the shoulder and swung him to the long window, where the guide stood pointing downwards.

A courtyard lay beneath the window, surrounded entirely by tall grey walls. Anyone walking down there would have been crushed by the weight of disapproving windows ranged above him.

In the middle of the courtyard, a wooden cage had been built. Inside the cage was a tall, sturdy pole. What made this arrangement remarkable was the fact that cage and pole stood on a slatted wooden platform, which was built over piles of logs. Tucked in among the logs were bundles of brushwood. Bunches of twigs and kindling skirted the brushwood.

The Oligarch said, “The punishment for treason is death. That you knew before you entered here. Death by burning. You have preached against the State. You will be burnt.”

Parlingelteg spoke up boldly as the curtain was pulled back over the window. “If you dare burn us, you  will turn the religion of Sibornal against the State. Every man’s hand will be against you. You will not survive. Sibornal itself may not survive.”

Asperamanka made a run for the door, shouting, “I’ll see to ithat the world hears of this villainy.”

But there were soldiers outside the door who turned him back.

Chubsalid stood in the middle of the room and said soothingly to him, “Be firm, my good priest. If this crime is committed here in the centre of Askitosh, there will be those who will never rest until the Azoiaxic triumphs. This is the monster who believes that treachery costs less than armies. He will find that this treachery costs him everything.”

The unmoving man in the chair said, “The greatest good is the survival of civilisation over the next centuries. To that end all else must be sacrificed. Fine principles have to go. When plague’s rampant, law  and order break down. So it has always been at the onset of previous Great Winters-in Campannlat, in Hespagorat, even in Sibornal. Armies run mad, records burn, the finest emblems of the state are destroyed. Barbarism reigns.

“This time, this winter, we shall/will survive that crisis. Sibornal is to become a fortress. Already none may enter. Soon, none shall leave. For four centuries, we shall remain a haven of law and order, whilst the cold tears out the gizzards of wolves. We will live from the sea.

“Values will be maintained, but those values must be the values of survival. I will not have Church and State at loggerheads. That is what the Oligarchy has decided. Ours is the only plan which can/determined save the maximum number of people.

“Next spring, we shall rise up strong while Campannlat is still given over to primitivism and its women lug carts like beasts of burden-if  they haven’t forgotten how to makewheels by then. At that time, we shall resolve the endless hostility with those savage lands for good and all.

“Do you call that wicked? Do you call that wicked, Priest-Supreme? To see our beloved continent triumph?”

Garbed in his canonicals, Chubsalid made a fine figure. He drew himself up. He let silence cover the Oligarch’s rhetoric before he replied. “Whatever you may arrogantly believe to the contrary, yours is the argument of a weak man. We have in Sibornal a harsh religion, forged, like the Great Wheel itself, out of an adverse climate. But what we preach is stoicism, not cruelty. Yours is the ancient argument of ends justifying means. You will find that if you pursue your proposed course the cruel means will subvert the end, and your plan will fail utterly.”

The man in the chair moved his hand scarcely an inch as a substitute for a gesture. “We may make mistakes, Priest-Supreme, that I grant. Then we shall simply bury our dead and remain on course.”

Parlingelteg’s clear young voice rang out: “And allthe dead will bear witness against you. Word will go from gossie to gossie. All will hear of your crimes.”

The Oligarch’s darker tone replied. “The dead may bear witness. Happily, they cannot bear arms.”

“When this deed is known, many will bear arms against you!” “If you have nothing to say beyond the airing of threats, then the time has come for you to meet those unarmed millions below ground yourselves. Or do any of you care to reconsider your loyalty to the State in view of what I have said?”

He motioned to the guards. Parlingelteg shouted the forbidden curse. “Abro Hakmo Astab, damned Oligarch!”

Armed guards marched across the room with heavy tread, to take up positions behind the ecclesiastics.

Asperamanka could say nothing for the trembling of his jaw. He rolled his eyes at Chubsalid, who patted him on the shoulder. The youngest priest took Chubsalid by the arm and called out again, “Burn us and you set all Askitosh afire!”

Chubsalid said, “I warn you, Oligarch, if you cause a schism between Church and State, your plans will never succeed. You will divide the people. If you burn us, your plan will already have failed.”

In a composed voice, the Oligarch said, “I shall find others who will cooperate, Priest-Supreme. Dozens of the obedient will rush to fill your place-and think it honourable. I know men well.”

As the guards took hold of the captives, Asperamanka broke free. He ran towards the Oligarch’s throne and went down on one knee, bowing his head.

“Dread Oligarch, spare me. You know that I, Asperamanka, was your faithful servant in war. You surely never intended that such a valuable instrument should be killed. Do with these other two as you will, but let me be saved, let me serve again! I believe that Sibornal must survive as you say. Harsh times call for harsh measures. Spiritual power must make way for temporal power to secure the way. Just let me live, and I will serve . . . for the glory of God.”

“You may do it for your own base sake, but never for God’s,” said Chubsalid. “Get up! Die with us, Asperamanka-‘twill be less pain.”

“Living or dying, we accept the role of pain in our existence,” said the Oligarch. “Asperamanka, this comes unexpectedly from you, the victor of Isturiacha. You entered here with your brothers; why not burn with your brothers?”

Asperamanka was silent. Then, without rising from his knees, he Burst out in a flood of eloquence.

“What has been said here belongs not so much to politics or morals as to history. You wish to change history, Oligarch-perhaps the obse ssion of all great men. Indeed our cyclic history stands in need of reform-reform which must be brutal to be effective.

“Yet I speak for our beloved Church, which I have also served- served with devotion. Let these burn for it. I’d rather live for it. Historyshows us that religions can perish just like nations. I have not forgotten my history lessons as a child in the monastery of Old Askitosh, where I was taught of the defeat of the

  religion of Pannoval at the hand of a wicked King of Borlien and his ministers. If Church and State here fall apart, then our Supreme God is similarly threatened. Let me, as a Man of God, serve your ends.”

As the other priests were marched out, Parlingelteg took a flying kick at Asperamanka, sending him sprawling on the floor. “Hypocrite!” he called as he was dragged out of range.

“Take those two down to the courtyard,” said the Oligarch. “If a little fear is struck into the heart of the Church, the Church may not be so vocal in future.”

He sat motionless as Priest-Supreme Chubsalid and Priest-Chaplain Parlingelteg were marched away.

The chamber emptied. Only one guard remained, silent in the shadows, and Asperamanka, still crouching on the floor, face pale.

The Oligarch’s cold stare turned in Asperamanka’s direction.

“I can always find work for your kind,” he said. “Get up on your feet.”