OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 2: The White Knight
Tarsus awoke where he stood. He realized he had been staring, transfixed, toward the edge of the Wandering Wood. He instantly wondered how long he had been standing there, staring on after the two strange women he seemed to recall but could not remember.
Next to him, Finnian roused as well. Tarsus looked to his friend, and the two shared the same puzzled expression. They did not need to say anything to one another. They had fought side by side long enough, been friends long enough, to know they both had the same questions.
Standing a few paces ahead of them on the dirt road was the white knight. As though in answer to their newfound alertness, the warrior turned to face them. Then, he lifted his sword, pointing it at Finnian.
“How long must it take for the lesson to sink in? Your actions have consequences,” the knight scolded. “You’re both lucky to be alive.”
“I know your voice,” Finnian said with a smile. “Drake?”
“Finnian,” Tarsus bellowed out instinctively. It was a ludicrous proposition. “No.”
The knight lowered his blade then and sheathed his sword. He brought his hands to his helm and lifted it off. Beneath it was indeed the pale, young Drake Mathix. His hair was brown and matted, his face was stern, and his eyes were piercing.
“Drake!” Tarsus shouted in disbelief. “You’re a knight of the Kings-Guard? Truly?”
“Yes,” Drake answered simply.
“When?” Finnian asked.
“This morning,” Drake said. “At dawn, I knelt before the high priest of Malthus and swore my oath of service.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this was happening?” Tarsus demanded incredulously. “A militia captain being sworn into the Kings-Guard…it is a rare thing. And you’re only twenty seven! We have to celebrate!”
“I do not want to celebrate,” Drake said evenly.
“Why?” Tarsus asked, suddenly deflated.
“Because his majesty would prefer to serve,” Finnian said mockingly. “Gods forbid the mighty Drake Mathix enjoy himself with his friends. No, he must study and practice and fill himself with so much duty that…”
“No one can be filled with duty,” Drake interrupted. “It is a burden, Finnian. A burden that is thrust upon those who can endure it. That is something you have never understood. Becoming a knight of the Kings-Guard is no cause for celebration. Tis a calling. Something I must do, so that you can idle your time away with your own fancies.”
“And chase girls,” Finnian added. “I also spend my time chasing girls.”
“It’s just…” Tarsus paused, considering Drake’s words before he spoke. “We did dream of this. All of us. We all want to be knights of the Kings-Guard…serving together. More than anything.”
“And the truth is, for the two of you, it will remain only a dream. As it should,” Drake said.
Tarsus was taken aback. He stood there, with mouth agape and shock in his eyes. He did not know what to say. He could only think; and so his mind took him back through the years of memories he had with these men.
Drake and Finnian had both been his friends since childhood. They were the ones that accepted him when his parents fled the mountains amidst civil war. The barbarian hordes fought each other, and he was brought to Briarden as a boy. A better life, that’s what his parents promised him. But it was hard at first. They were different from the rest of the town and it took time for him to find friends. But when he found Drake Mathix and Finnian Pell, it was as if everything had fallen into place. They instantly shared their dreams of being great knights and fighting in far off lands; slaying dragons and saving fair maids. They were inseparable, and even though they did not always get along, they always supported one another.
They entered the militia together, and as Drake rose the ranks to captain, Tarsus and Finnian cheered him on. But now, just in this moment, things felt different. Drake was always a stern soul. He was dedicated and strong. But for the first time, Tarsus felt that his friend was looking down on him.
“You are a contemptible ass,” Finnian said.
Drake did not respond. He simply put his helm back on, turned, and climbed onto the saddle of his charger.
“I have another hour of patrol left,” Drake said from atop his steed. “Meet me at the Good Shepherd in two hours time. We shall raise a pint together.”
Drake turned from his friends and spurred his horse on. It took only a few moments for him to reach the opening of the mouth of the forest, and to disappear into the vast expanse.
Tarsus could only stare after him; transfixed, as he had been before.
“Tarsus?” he heard, shaking him out of his reverie.
“We should get going,” Finnian said.
“Yes,” Tarsus turned back and looked at his dead horse in the road. “We’ll have to walk.”
“I’m sorry I almost got you killed,” Finnian said quietly.
“I know you are Finnian,” Tarsus comforted, smiling at his friend. “You’re always sorry.”
“I’ll tell you what, to make it up to you, I will regale you with my thrilling tales of girl-chasing all the way back to Briarden.”
“What?” Tarsus’s smile faded quickly. “Why?”
“Because,” Finnian smiled even more broadly, “You’re doing that thing where you stare off into the distance and act all mysterious. But you’re easier to read than you believe. Drake’s words hurt, and if there is nothing to distract you, you will spend the entire walk home in your own head. You’ll be thinking of how you do not measure up, and plotting how to be better.”
“Is that so wrong?” Tarsus asked genuinely. “To want to be better?”
“No,” Finnian said. “But I learned this poem once to impress Sarah Bertram when we were younger. I can’t remember how it all goes now, but it ended with these lines: Brooding desire leads to vicious obsession/and ambition can be both the rise, and fall of men.”
“Hm,” Tarsus gave a small smile as he took in those words. “I should like to read the rest of that poem.”
“Sadly I’ll never remember it, so it’s lost to the river of time,” Finnian said with a stern face.
“I suppose I’ll have to settle for going home and drinking with my friends then,” Tarsus said.
“I think that’s a wonderful consolation,” Finnian enthused. “Let’s be on our way and I can tell you the rest of what happened with Sarah.”Tarsus and Finnian began their journey home to Briarden. Finnian provided the entertainment, the raucous laughter and the applause to his own tale. The sheer spectacle of a Finnian Pell story; a story which needed no audience whatsoever; was always enough to entertain Tarsus. He smiled, laughed along in the places where he should, and found himself being drawn out of his own thoughts and becoming more and more present in this long walk back.