The magic echoed in his ears as they marched.
The northern lords had taken their time to assemble, and Terminallia had not stirred at all, but everything had changed when the news went out. That the people of Monos hated his family, he did not doubt. Harmude the Third had been an inscrutable and frightening man who rose to power by rebelling against the previous king. Jon the Cursed had foreign blood in him, and few were sad to see him go, yet Harmude shared the foreign love of magic. He was obsessed with discovering the ancient spells that had allowed the old powers to rule half the world. Spellers became powerful, and witches walked openly in the streets. To all eyes, Harmude had never managed to discover the secrets he sought, yet the whispers of old powers lent his reign the terror they needed to command the masses.
All that terror and magic, and the strength that came with it, was ended by something as common as the point of a sword.
The king’s council chamber at Geumsil had been transformed into some perverse ritual chamber, with strange shapes and inhuman glyphs smeared upon its walls. They were written in blood, many had said. Ardromor had only caught glimpses of them, and was unsure. One of the speller-warriors outside the chamber had assured him they were only letters, but the prince had not been eased.
He was only seven at the time, and his father and grandfather had not seen fit to include him in their dark counsels. Cenedras had been twelve, almost a man, and even he was kept out. They had been in their own rooms, trying to sleep. It was well after midnight, and the dark chamber was two floors below, but Ardromor was still certain he had heard screaming. He dragged his brother from his slumber down to the chamber and pounded on the door, but it would not open, nor would the armed spellers let them in. Cenedras whispered that the spellers would likely kill them if they did not go back to bed.
Yet in the end, all it took was a sword. Swords, and the men to wield them.
Uncle Dalabar strode into the antechamber like a black fury. A fleshy man with muscled arms, his midnight beard jutted like a spearpoint from his jaw, and his eyes looked blacker still. He would not be stopped. It was only a moment before one of his men struck the door open with a great hammer, and they marched inside. Whatever scream Ardromor had heard in his sleep was dwarfed into nothing by the screams born of Dalabar’s sword.
King Dalabar the Second was hailed as a hero. The lords, the commons, even the Holy Isle of Acciano had celebrated his courageous act, despite their strange and unclear connection to the Old Faith and its magic-lust. He was absolved of his murder by all, and everyone cheered when he crossed the Sea of Trials to be crowned at the Holy Isle.
King Harmude’s sinister plans had hung over the nation like a shadow, but Dalabar’s own would fall like an ax. He allowed the Prince of Hosts to crown him on Acciano in a ceremony that lasted no more than ten minutes, then left the isle at once to begin the Terror.
For over a year, no one said ought. Witches, armed spellers, all those who had profited most from Harmude’s perverted religion were the first to fall, hanged like the lowborn fiends they were. It was only when the lord of Terminallia was beheaded that the applause of the nobility began to falter. When he began to hang the spellers of high lords, and burn those that had no patron to serve, the cheers became less sincere. It was nearly two years in when the new king and his inquisitors began to come for anyone, peasant or lord, who professed the Old Faith.
Even now, Ardromor did not understand the distinctions between the Hosts and the Old Faith. Other than a faint tolerance for female power and a fascination with magic, the Old Faith seemed little different from their conventional beliefs, yet those differences proved sufficient to justify the deaths of thousands. A dozen times at least, he thought to speak with his uncle and ask what he was trying to do. “Kill yourself if you must,” Cenedras always said. “Kings are like lions. Prod them at your peril.”
Prince Cenedras had always smirked and shrugged at both Harmude and Dalabar. It was five years into the terror before Ardromor’s big brother finally felt the need to pick a side. Rather than object to their uncle’s madness, however, he nodded approval and celebrated the killings, his voice neither louder nor softer than the others. “They’re all terrified,” he had insisted, “none of them want this. But they know if they stop cheering, they’ll be next. That’s the way it always is.”
When he was a child, no more than four or five, Ardromor had dreams of his big brother protecting him from harm. Those dreams died when they stood and watched their uncle break down that door. Two years into the Terror, when King Dalabar the Second imprisoned their mother on suspicion of spelling, Cenedras said nothing. But then, neither did Ardromor. Nine years old seemed too young to die.
Theirs was a dynasty of murderers and cowards, and Ardromor did not doubt that all and sundry hated their family. Yet all the same, when news of Cenedras’ death spread, the armies marched. It seemed the only thing they hated more than their fellow Monosi were foreigners. Cenedras had been a coward, venal and selfish, yet he had been right, always. The people flocked to his cause. Perhaps their love of country had been stirred by his courageous campaign into Zalja. Perhaps they were just happy to see royal violence inflected on someone other than themselves. Regardless, all Monos grieved the king, and the armies marched.
Ardromor did not know how he felt. Despite what his mother had told him in his youth, emotion was not something celebrated in men, particularly not in royalty. He had learned to hide his feelings well, like Dalabar before him. When he was told of his mother’s execution for witchcraft when he was ten, he did not shed a tear. He still had not, nine years later. Why should he, he had not seen it. He had not seen her since her imprisonment. By now, he had long forgotten what she looked like.
Ardromor adjusted his crown for the fourth time that hour. He had never expected to wear one. Cenedras’ son was only two, but he was still the heir apparent, and the queen had another child on the way. Yet the Prince of Hosts, Lord Hestec of Terminallia, even the northern Lord Sarian, they had all insisted he don the crown. He sailed to Acciano, went through the same ceremony his brother had, and put the thing on. He could always set it aside when little Innifor came of age, he told himself. For now, Innifor was safely stowed on the Holy Isle, guarded by Sir Guiddis, the man he trusted most. Queen Aurela was hidden somewhere in Westheart; even Ardromor did not know where. For better or worse, his cursed dynasty should be safe.
Lord Hestec rode up next to him on his giant blond destrier. “Have we entered Zalja now, Highness?” he asked, the title spilling easily from his lips.
“No,” he answered. “This is all Monos now.”
“Too true, Highness, too true,” he laughed. Lord Hestec had a good deal of Vainan blood, but it was all on his mother’s side, so largely ignored. He was proudly illiterate and did not even employ spellers, which was his excuse for why he had failed to answer Cenedras’ summons. He was a wise choice to rule Terminallia after the Terror, but even Ardromor could see that at least a little spelling was needed to run a kingdom. He would have to speak with the lords on how to safely reintroduce spelling outside of Acciano. Young Lord Massam of the Hilldren had spellers, he recalled. Perhaps the new generation would not be so averse to it.
Hestec was a tall but slump-shouldered man near fifty, who looked ridiculous in his black and red armor. He even had red-dyed chainmail beneath it, and black leathers. The colors of the House of Pelendor were light yellow and dark green, but Hestec felt those insufficiently intimidating. His naked lip and scraggly brown fringe of a beard, pocked with grey, were similarly unimpressive, but Ardromor chose not to mention that.
“This is our new land, then?” he asked, dripping with poorly concealed avarice. “Mountains, I see. Those may yield good ore. It would do well to have our own great mines. Importing quality iron from Vaina is a dangerous business.”
“Only since my grandfather took the throne,” Ardromor countered. “The Vainans were perfectly happily to deal with King John and his forebears.” They had been his own forebears as well, but best not to broach that point. Royalty was a confusing business, and half the charts of nobility had been burned during the Terror.
“Bah! The Denarandos were half-Vainan themselves,” Hestec insisted with no apparent irony. “We’re well rid of them. As well deliver the whole country over to Vaina while we’re at it.”
“Many insist that is precisely what happened when the Denarandos sat the throne.” Again, he chose not to point out that his own line were cousins to the Denarandos, nor that both Hestec and his wife were practically half-Vainan themselves.
“Just so!” he insisted with assumed heartiness. “All the more reason to be rid of them.”
Before the Denarandos, Monos had been ruled by the Morenalle dynasty, the descendants of a Mornal warlord that had actually conquered them. Monos had a strange quality, however, that compelled foreign rulers to put off their old cloaks and call themselves Monosi. Ardromor briefly wondered if Zalja might someday do the same.
“Whom do you mean to grant these lands to, Highness?” Hestec asked, finally getting to the obvious point.
“Lord Urriment holds them at present.”
Hestec looked aghast. “A Gemosian? Oh Highness, no, no, no. Gemosia is grown too great if you ask me, too proud. It’s past time to prune them.”
“The same has been said of Terminallia, Lord Hestec.”
“Rightly so!” he boomed, failing to take the hint. “How many rebellions have there been in the last century? And every one started by the Terminals. A wonder they’re not entirely wiped out. I ought to rename the whole province, deracinate their family root and stem.”
The House of Terminallia was currently installed at a minor holding far to the east. They were humbled, but Ardromor had little doubt they would rise again in another generation or so. Besides, though more rebellions were born in Terminallia than anywhere else, not all of them were started or led by the Terminal House.
“I respect your moderation, Highness,” Hestec pressed, “but in this I must question you. Humbly,” he added.
“It was not my decision,” Ardromor answered. “My brother installed him.”
“Of course, of course,” the lord demurred. “High Highness was a bold and powerful man, and though I would never speak ill of the dead—”
“That is a wise policy,” Ardromor interrupted, once again on stopped ears.
“Yet I will suggest your royal brother trusted too easily.”
“He did not trust at all. He gave these mountains to Lord Urriment because he did not care who held them. I’ll give them to someone else once everything is settled.”
“A wise decision, Highness.” He could practically hear I know just the man emanating from Hestec’s thankfully closed lips. He looked ready to speak the words when Pietta rode up on her donkey.
“Highness,” she said, “I have found word of the Ividar family.”
A speller named Alena had arrived with news of Cenedras’ death, accompanied by a Gemosian knight named Sir Ullion. Rather than return to the front, however, both begged leave to return home, and it seemed fitting to grant it. The Holy Isle had given their new king Pietta to replace Alena, along with two spellers no older than twenty years, named Villa and Assandra. Pietta was past thirty, which meant she was well-spelt and cunning enough to have survived the Terror. Ardromor had ordered her to gather all the information on Zalja she could muster before they set out, with special attention on the family of Ividar. Sir Ullion had mentioned the name, and Grace agreed the man had been an impressive commander. Ardromor wished to know his foes.
“Who is this Ividar?” Lord Hestec asked. Ardormor ignored him.
“Tell me of him.”
Pietta offered a nervous glance at the lord, but obeyed. “These records are quite old, Highness—”
“Naturally,” he interrupted. “Still. Tell me.”
“Lord Gahandin Ro Ividar is the beylan of Dalsaman, which I take to mean mayor or governor. He is also the prefect of the Dejitsa region, where Dalsaman lies.”
“A high lord, then,” he nodded. “That makes sense.”
“The king did not ride forth?” Hestec asked. He tsked at that. “A king who will not defend his people shan’t remain king for long.
Ardromor ignored him. “Sir Ullion called him a divine commander, or something like that.”
Pietta hummed at that. “I have records of dealings with a Divine Commander Hanriel Ro Saldandan, but he is from a different province. It may be Ividar was only recently made a divine commander.”
Ardromor hummed agreement. “So, a young force, eager to prove himself.” Just like Cenedras. Just like me. “No victories to his name, then?”
“I fear I only have records of his work as beylan, Highness. His family has provided many paladins, though, a sort of Zaljan knight, and four or five divine commanders. It is an old family. Paladins give up their inheritances, so many volunteers are second sons and daughters.”
“Daughters!?” Hestec scoffed openly. “So the rumors are true. Imagine swinging a sword with a skirt on.” He laughed loudly. “Don’t get any ideas, girl,” he told Pietta, waggling his finger at her. She ignored him. Ardromor smiled thinly despite himself.
He glanced over at her face. “You’re not telling me something, Pietta.”
She looked at him, wide-eyed, as though no one had ever spoken her name before. “Highness… As I said, these records are quite old…”
“Of course. Tell me.”
“I have another record, something one of your grandfather’s spies delivered back when he sat the throne. Fifteen years ago.”
“Go on.” He was growing impatient, but tried to keep his voice even.
“It’s only a sentence or two, random thoughts in a long missive about military positions and exports throughout the nation.”
“It says Dalsaman might pass out of the Ividar family when Lord Gahandin dies, because of his daughter having joined the paladins sometime before. The women inherit just as men do, in Zalja. The passage says Dalsaman must pass to his cousins, and that they are vulnerable, not as influential.”
“That may prove useful,” he allowed, though it hardly seemed relevant to an immediate assault.
“Well, Highness, it’s difficult to glean from only two sentences, but… the way it’s spelt, suggests to me that Lord Gahandin was expected to die soon. It says ‘of his ague, the crabs in his stomach.’”
“Crabs?” Stomach crabs was a horrible, painful way to go. It was also considered an illness for old men and cravens. Some thought his Uncle Dalabar might die of it, and few were sad to hear of it, but in the end he died of burst bowels. Even his wife did not mourn him; she had been killed in the Terror.
“If it was stomach crabs, Highness…”
“He would not be alive now,” he finished, “fifteen years later.”
“Might be,” Lord Hestec suggested uselessly. “These Zaljans have their own strange magics, don’t they? They could do with a good Terror, if you ask me.” No one had, but Ardromor let that rest.
“You say Zalja has female knights? Paladins?”
Ardromor hummed at that. It was irksome to prize it out of her, but he appreciated her subtlety. If they had indeed faced a mere woman, and Cenedras had fallen to her in battle, it could well be the ruin of their line. Cenedras himself had said it: fear ruled Monos. The masses had feared the Old Faith of Harmude just as they had feared they Host-Keeping of Dalabar, yet they had not stood up to either. Dalabar slew Harmude, and Dalabar’s bowels slew Dalabar. If Cenedras could be slain by a woman, then perhaps Ardromor no one to fear either. They may kneel to King Cenedras or King Ardromor for a time, but in the end fear was the true King of Kings in Monos.
By day’s end, they had arrived at Makh. Cenedras had intended to rename it, but could not think of anything before leaving. He was too excited to march. Ardromor had passed through Makh on his ride back to Geumsil and found it a red waste. Most of the grass had still been torn up by the Monosi cavalry, and indeed some of the blood had still not been cleaned from the buildings, leaving them a brown, flaky mess. Now, at last, the grass was starting to grow again, and many of the buildings had been knocked down and rebuilt in the Monosi style. The Zaljan peasants labored unsmilingly, but they labored, and their home was starting to take shape again. Lord Urriment’s soldiers were everywhere, and there was nowhere to stand without a knight in shouting distance.
All work stopped as Ardromor’s vanguard rode up, however, and it was only a minute or two before a boy ran up to take his horse. Ardromor dismounted, and by the time his gloves were off Lord Urriment was approaching with an armed retinue. “Your Grace,” he offered as greeting. “It is an honor to see you again. Am I to take it by this great host that you will be honoring us with your company a little longer than last time?”
“Only a day,” he answered. “We must continue on to Dalsaman.”
“Vargano, it is now called,” Lord Urriment said, smiling fiercely. He was a grey old man, but still stout and broad-shouldered, his well-trimmed beard failing to hide a strong jaw. His bulbous nose made him look something of a fool, but a glance in his hard blue eyes would disabuse anyone of such assumptions. Urriment had voiced some quiet concerns during the reigns of both Harmude and Dalabar, but had wisely kept those concerns amongst those he trusted. The man came well recommended from his overlord Borromeo, yet even the wild and warlike Lord Eugeno praised his valor and prowess at arms. Ardromor would never have wasted him as a mere jailor for a beaten town.
The new king found himself blinking for a moment. “Vargano. Indeed. Our sister’s name was Vargana.”
“Well do I remember, your Grace,” Urriment said in his deep, round voice. “My daughter Tyrana was a lady companion to her, toward the end.”
“Forgive me, my Lord, I had forgotten.” His sister’s face, too, had long deserted him.
“No offence was given, Grace. What is your knowledge of Vargano’s condition, if I may ask?”
“You would seem better informed than I,” he answered, a faint smile breaking into his face. Urriment did not know of Cenedras’ death, and he thought it yet unwise to bruit about his brother’s fate until he knew more. He liked Lord Urriment, but Cenedras had taught him the dangers of trust.
“Last we heard, there was fear of the enemy finally coming out of the west,” he said with a shrug. “Some great war chief, meant to chasten our men. I sent a rider south to learn more, but he never returned. I’m not fool enough to send another.”
“I’ll not gainsay that.”
A smirk grew upon Urriment’s face. “You’re not telling me something, your Grace.”
Several things. “True, my Lord.”
“Very well, Grace. Let it not be said that Urriment respects not the chain of authority.” He turned and pointed west. “The palace, such as it is, is a poor hovel of only two stories, but it is yours this evening.”
“We’ll make camp outside the town,” Ardromor said. “I’ll not tax this place any further.” He glanced north toward the burnt and fallow fields. “It has suffered enough.”
“Would that were so,” Urriment sighed. “The villagers are tame now, but there is a roiling hatred in their faces, and their courtesies are tinged with the sullen resentment of a second son. I fear we’ll face a revolt soon.”
“Fear?” Ardromor asked, faint amusement coloring the word. “Can so mighty a lord fear this rabble?”
“I fear for them,” he answered humorlessly. “As you say, Grace, they’ve suffered greatly. If they raise their broken hoes and pitchforks against us, the town’ll be wiped out before I can give the order to hold.” He put his hands on his hips as he glanced about. “Just as well, I suppose. Myself, I’d rather die than be humbled like this.”
A sword in your hand was a comfort in death, or so Ardromor had heard all his life. “Would you, my Lord?”
Urriment looked back, the boyish smirk returning to his weathered face. “I would, your Grace, yes. But then, I am a lord, and my armor is well-forged. Perhaps if I had to face my end with a broken pitchfork I’d feel differently.” He sighed. “Yes, I imagine I would.”
Ardromor’s squires had erected his tent west of the town, for which he was duly grateful. Cittuvio was near to the east, and it would not do to be caught between two hostile towns. The west and north lay some lonely hills, and beyond them the Shadowgate Mountains. Legends of devils and demons in those mountains had flown freely for centuries beyond recall, and it seemed peasants of any nation put store in the tales.
He received news of a deserter from Vargano being captured south of Makh, but directed them to hold the man until after his dinner. Ardromor was famished and weary, but more importantly he had plans to enact.
He invited Lord Urriment to dine with him, along with the speller Pietta. Urriment was obviously dismayed to be sitting at a camp table with a woman, especially a literate one, but he kept his objections to himself. Less could be said for Lord Hestec, who had half-invited himself.
“You must be near wetting yourself, girl,” he said, not for the first time. “Have you ever dined in such high company, Miss?”
“I have often been in the room as the Prince of Hosts dined,” she answered diffidently, “and once or twice shared a meal with the senior hostermen of the Holy Isle, but no my Lord, I have never dined with a… prince.”
“Every girl’s fantasy,” Hestec japed to wild silence.
“She is not a girl,” Ardromor objected.
“Oh come now, Highness, shall I call her an old woman, then?”
Ardromor had often been accused of looking daggers at people, though sadly he found his looks did not have the violent effect such a phrase portended. Urriment glanced about with obvious curiosity each time Hestec said ‘highness,’ but his famous discretion mastered him all the same. Pietta was wearing a dress of pink and red silk, lined in gilt cloth, lent by one of the northern lords. Ardromor suspected it was the finest garb she had ever worn. Her light hair had been washed and braided back. She looked quite fetching for one so lowborn, though she was tongue-tied in such company. It was irksome, though understandable. Her every second glance was at Lord Urriment, who seemed to enjoy the attention. Ardromor smiled at that, internally.
“Lord Urriment,” he said suddenly, interrupting whatever Hestec had been saying, “are you confident in your men here?”
Hestec, as ever, assumed the question was directed at him. “Good men and true, good men and true,” he insisted, slapping Urriment on the back. They were near in years, yet Urriment could have snapped Hestec like a twig. But Hestec was lord of all Terminallia, absurdly, whilst Urriment ruled over a small rural fiefdom. Urriment knew his place.
“They are disciplined and reliable,” he answered. “A bit overzealous, as I suggested earlier, but that is hardly a sin, in an occupied town.”
“A virtue!” cried Lord Hestec. “Gemosian men. I have long said, Highness, anytime you require good men and true, seek out Gemosia first.”
“Good and true,” Ardromor echoed, “and proud.” If Hestec recognized the allusion to his earlier warnings, he showed no sign. “Tell me, Lord Urriment, would you consider joining me on my campaign south? I could use another military mind on my counsel.” Or any military mind at all, he thought. The northern lords were no strangers to battle, living so near to Vaina and the dreaded Orckid Empire, but they were a wild bunch that understood little beyond raiding and hiding behind walls. When it came to breaching the walls, or even mere dispositions, they were woefully innocent.
Urriment’s surprise seemed genuine. “I should be honored, your Grace,” he said, laying a light but noticeable accent on the honorific, “though I fear someone of sufficient stature would be needed to command my men in my absence.”
Lord Hestec nearly choked at that, but Ardromor talked over any potential interruption. “Are there no officers among your power that you trust?”
“Trust? Absolutely, Grace. I could name you five knights immediately, but none are lords. Should there be any disagreement on policy, command may collapse.”
“Ah,” Ardromor pondered with deliberate slowness. “A lord is needed, then.” Urriment nodded.
“If I may, Highness,” Hestec burst in, unable to restrain himself, “I would be honored to take up this burden.”
Ardromor looked him over as if considering this for the first time. “Certainly, a great lord like yourself would hold sway over these men. But what of your own soldiers, my Lord? They are needed to break the siege, and I think it unwise to switch the companies out during these dangerous times.”
Hestec waved his hands in a vain attempt at a casual air. “No fear at all, Highness. I’ll keep a small company of my own men about me here, but my third son Junis has marched with me. He may command the principal of my power.”
Junis would do no such thing, of course. The following morning, an hour outside of Makh, Lord Urriment would seize control of Hestec’s forces, whilst the sputtering old beanpole was left to serve as figurehead for Urriment’s disciplined, reliable soldiers. With any luck, the devils of the Shadowgates would fly down and carry him off.
“This is excellent news,” Ardromor said in a voice so silky he felt like Lord Borromeo. “We shall make the announcement before departure tomorrow morning.” So this is politics, Ardromor thought. He was still young, but wise enough to realize it was mere child’s play to manipulate a man as obtuse as Hestec. Still, it was a start. Perhaps he could be a king after all.
The dinner was charming enough, even with Hestec’s boasting and interruptions. They enjoyed a good Vainan wine. Ardromor had no palate for wines, but he knew the Vainan ones were considered the best. At the end of the dinner, he asked Pietta to accompany Lord Urriment to his estate to record any orders he might have for his soldiers. Hestec insisted he would be able to translate any such wishes, and that he would after all be taking over command in the morning. Ardromor was five seconds from punching the man when a junior knight in green-and-white silks stepped in to remind him about the deserter they had taken.
“Hang him,” Ardromor grunted, ready for sleep.
“For shame, Highness,” Hestec erupted, louder than ever. “Such a man must surely look his king in his face before he dies.” The fool had kinged Ardromor so much over the evening, Urriment had long since stopped noticing. “Come now, Highness, bring the man here.”
Ardromor sniffed. “Hang him,” he repeated.
“Forgive me, Grace, Highness,” the boy stuttered. “Forgive me. The man says he has vital news from the siege. He says it will buy his life.”
“Bold,” Hestec suggested. “Bring him in, Highness, let him gamble for his life. That’s what I say.”
“I know what you say, my Lord.” He was sore tempted to hang the man anyway, just to spite Lord Hestec, but he mastered himself. Any man who is slave to his passions becomes the slave of all men, were the famous words attributed to King Nicodemo the Bridegroom. Ardromor suspected he had stolen the words, as he had supposedly stolen his crown and everything else, but they were wise words regardless. He ordered the young knight to bring the man before him.
The man was tall and broad, clearly a cavalier at least. He wore a roughspun cloak that shadowed his face, but a filthy beard of dark gold peaked out of it. His garb was plain and torn, though it had once been of quality. He wore a leather belt and a black scabbard, which was of course empty. He was manacled with steel, but neither shivered nor even knelt.
“My new friend Sir Ridimmio tells me you were going to hang me,” he offered as greeting, in a voice choked and hardened by hard travel.
“Is the siege so bad,” Ardromor asked, “that you would choose to die at home instead?”
“I’ll not die today,” he answered with smug amusement.
“Insolent cur!” Lord Hestec bellowed. “Kneel before your king!” He kicked the man behind his knee, hard, yet the man remained standing. Hestec kicked him again. “Kneel!” he shouted.
“Enough!” Ardromor burst. “Remove his hood.”
The knight, presumably Sir Ridimmio, pulled back the hood.
Ardromor’s eyes started from his skull. Hestec gasped and clutched at his heart, then thankfully fled the tent. Lord Urriment gaped openly. Pietta alone remained unshocked, though she felt the tension. “Your Grace?” she asked.
“Indeed,” the deserter said. “Your Grace, is it? I had heard you were using another style these days.”
Ardromor breathed deeply, then slowly. “You are a dead man.”
“So are all deserters, I hear.”
He nodded at that. Slowly, he knelt.