Thursday, December 24, 2015

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.
“What?”
“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.  






Saturday, December 12, 2015

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 1: The Chase

        All was still on the edge of the Wandering Wood.  A light breeze blew past as tree branches danced in its sway.  The sun shone down from a clear sky.  It was peaceful here: serene.
From inside the wood, the neighing of a horse echoed faintly; as though it were coming from deep in the heart of the forest.
Then, suddenly, a bolt of black crashed through the trees on the forest’s edge.  It raced down the road leading out of the wood.  Latched on behind the black was a cart that held a cowering woman holding frantically onto the railing that fenced her in.  Her high-pitched shriek rose and fell as the black blur sped forward to Meeks Harbor.
Only moments after, two chestnut mares crashed through the same forest opening onto the road.  The riders, two young men wearing simple leather armor, willed their steeds on.  The cart was not far ahead.
“Tis simple logic Tarsus,” said the young man riding the horse to the left of the path.  “We are two different size men atop two horses of the same size.  The horse carrying the bigger man, you, cannot hope to move as quickly as the horse carrying the smaller man, me.”
“I understand Finnian,” replied the young man riding the horse to the right of the path.  “So what boon will you give me should I get to the lady first?”
“Help!” cried the woman being both discussed and held hostage on this speeding chase.
“Is the satisfaction of saving a beautiful young woman not enough for you?” asked Finnian with his easy smile.
“For me?  Yes.  But I know it is not enough for you,” Tarsus replied.
“Too true.  Every good contest has a prize at the end,” Finnian said as he looked to the road ahead.  “What of this?  Whoever saves her first, buys the other as many pints as he likes?”
“Not a fare wager,” Tarsus smiled, also keeping his eyes on the road.  “You never know your limits.”
“And you have no limits,” Finnian said.  
Both of them were riding hard, giving chase to this cart that was inching further and further away from them.  Mostly though, it was all Tarsus could do to keep up with Finnian.
“Very well,” Tarsus said, trying to end the conversation so he could give all his attention to fulfilling his boast.
“Excellent!  Ta,” Finnian said as he kicked his horse, sending it into a mad dash forward.
Tarsus was quickly falling behind.  He hastily kicked his own horse, hoping to spur the beast into a faster gallop.  It did not work.  Underneath him, Tarsus could feel the animal working hard, but there was no reserve of speed left to be tapped.
       Surrounding him on all sides were thick rows of trees.  The path out of the forest was a free and clear direct route to the harbor, but for a mile at least after leaving heart of the woodland, remnants of its trees and shrubbery closed in all who would dare enter or exit.  The mouth of the wood was long indeed.
Tarsus gritted his teeth and cursed himself.  Finnian was faster.  Still, perhaps the lithe and lean fellow could be slowed down.
Finnian rode forward wearing a self-satisfied smile.  His attention was split between the damsel just ahead and his own physical superiority in this particular situation.  He had found many advantages to being small since he and Tarsus joined the militia and more seemed to be discovered every day.  He reached out his hand, just about to touch the railing of the cart that came up waist-high on the young woman inside it.  His horse was gaining, and at any moment he’d grab the rail and leap into the moving cage: a hero.  
It came as a shock to him, then, when something hard struck him with great force in the back of the head.  His hand whipped immediately from the rail of the cart to shield and rub his new trauma.  Then he felt something hit his thigh.  He looked down just in time to see a potato fall away back onto the road.
Finnian looked back.  Tarsus was not far behind, and the bigger man had just finished hurling another potato his way.  Instead of hitting Finnian, though, it collided with the rump of his horse.  There was a loud neigh, and the animal bolted from side to side trying to avoid being struck again.
Finnian pulled hard on the reigns.  It was all he could do to regain control and force the beast to continue on in a straight line.  
But that momentary loss of control was all Tarsus needed to catch up.  The two were neck and neck again; the cart, the woman, and the black blur were just ahead.
In the distance, Tarsus saw the clearing at the end of the tree-lined path.  They were coming to the open country that surrounded the harbor.  If the black thing pulling the cart managed to get to the end of the road, it would have any number of directions in which to bolt; and Tarsus knew that even Finnian would not be able to keep up.
“No more games my friend,” Tarsus yelled.  “We must catch this thing now, before it gets into Meeks Fields.”
“Right you are,” Finnian mocked in an imitative, self-important tone.  “I’m just teasing, Tarsus.  Worry not.  I will catch it.”
Finnian pulled his reigns hard to the right, forcing his horse into Tarsus’s own steed.  It was an act that would have killed them both, had Tarsus not immediately pulled back.
Tarsus’s horse squealed from the force of its master’s pull.  It tried to stop suddenly, but the momentum the horse and the rider had built was too strong.  The horse slid along the forest road for a moment before its hind legs lifted up into the air.  Higher and higher they went, and Tarsus began sliding forward down the beast’s back toward its head.
The young soldier thought quickly.  He lifted his feet to the saddle and just as the animal reached the tipping point; with its body destined to flip and land on its own back; the rider pushed himself off with his legs.  Tarsus rolled hard on the ground below, and his body tumbled forward undeterred until finally he slid to a stop.
He tried to breathe but could only cough.  His lungs were on fire.  But after some momentary panic, he was able to force some air down into them.  In the distance, he heard a panicked neigh from what sounded like multiple horses, and then another crash.  
He turned over and got to his knees.  He put his hands to his stomach, brought them up to his face, felt around to the back of his head – all of his vital parts seemed to be intact, with only smears of blood to show for Finnian’s suicidal maneuver.  
The warrior got to his feet and turned back.  On the road behind him lay his steed, motionless.  He hobbled to it, and as he neared the creature’s head he stepped in a pool of blood.  
“Finnian, you fool,” Tarsus cursed under his breath.  His horse was dead.
He bent down and struggled to undo his sword and scabbard from the side of the saddle.  Once he had them, he rose with some effort and threw the open loop of the baldric over his right shoulder.  Then he turned back to the end of the forest road.  He pulled out his long sword and walked forward, slowly.  His vision was a bit blurred, but not far ahead he could make out the cart and the black bolt that had pulled it.  They were stopped in the middle of the road by a figure gleaming in brilliant white atop a large, white charger.  
As Tarsus approached the scene, the situation proved to be strange indeed.  The woman cowered in her cart, and was now using her cage as a means of protection.  The figure in white was a knight.  Tarsus recognized his armor as belonging to a member of the Kings-Guard; an elite order of knights charged with serving the Godking Malthus Himself and keeping His peace.  The knight had his sword drawn, but lowered and resting across the horn of his saddle.
Hitched to the cart: the source of so much terror and confusion: was naught more than a black mare.  Tarsus squinted and shook his head to be sure he was not dumbfounded by his fall.  But the mare remained.  To Tarsus, it looked thin and old.  He would have called it frail if not for the way the beast stood before the knight and his overlarge white charger.  The black horse seemed very calm, and looked this way and that as though not caring for the site of a knight of the Kings-Guard.
Tarsus pulled his eyes from this scene and began scanning the surrounding area.  Off to the left, on the ground, lay Finnian’s horse.  It too, seemed to have died of a foolhardy fall.  Tarsus’s eyes grew wide with concern.  He moved toward his friend’s horse in haste.
“Stay where you are sunsword,” said a familiar voice.
Tarsus looked up at the knight of the Kings-Guard.  A full helm shielded the man’s face making it impossible to decipher, but the voice was unmistakably familiar.  Did he know this man?    .
“Forgive me sir, but my friend was riding that horse and he may be hurt,” Tarsus said.
“From what I saw, your friend was the reason you both fell in the first place,” the knight replied in disgust.
“I’m sorry, but do I know you?” Tarsus asked letting his curiosity drive him.  “No one has called me a sunsword since I was a boy.”
“You are a tall man.  Broad of stature and brown of face.  In your hands, a long sword seems like naught but an overlarge dagger.  It is hardly a guess that you are from the mountains; likely from one of the barbarian hordes that live there.  Thus, a sunsword.  And you would serve Malthus well not to interrupt or interfere,” the knight explained.
Tarsus was dead certain he knew that voice.  It was hard to place it exactly, for it sounded deeper and muffled in the helm.  But Tarsus knew this knight, and he would obey the man.  He could not refuse a direct order in the name of the Godking.  He wished to be one of the Kings-Guard someday, and if he would wear that mantle then he had to honor it now.
“My lady, I say again that I do not wish to harm you.  But I need answers. Villagers on all sides of the forest claim to have seen a streak of black pulling a screaming woman in a cart.  They are panicking, saying they saw this happen throughout the night.  The forest is fifty leagues long, it is impossible for you to have been in every village bordering the wood.  Yet this is what was reported.  The accounts are miles apart from each other, and all came in by crow this morning.  Please tell me how you were able to do this,” the knight said.
“I don’t know,” she answered simply.  “All I remember, before being in this cart, was talking to a stranger in the Briny Thorn.”
“What is the Briny Thorn?” the knight pressed.
“A pub sir,” she answered.
“Where?  I have lived in Malthanon for ten years now and never have I heard of the Briny Thorn,” the knight clarified.
“Malthanon?” the woman asked confusedly.  “No.  The Briny Thorn is on the edge of Malmot.”
The knight raised his sword quickly, pointing it a few feet from the woman’s throat.
“Tell me truly,” the knight said calmly, but with purpose.  “How can anything other than a witch appear to folk in villages miles apart, in the course of a single night, on the borders of a forest two hundred leagues from her home?”
“I don’t know,” the woman said as tears began to well up in her eyes.  “I swear!”
“Sir knight!” a voice called out.  They all turned toward it and Tarsus glowered at what met his eyes.  
A standing, staggering Finnian was hobbling toward them.  “Does Malthus now teach that it is allowed to harass beautiful ladies?  Truth be told, it would be a relief to know that I am no longer a sinner in his eyes.  Well, for that at least.”
“Silence cur!” the knight spit venomously.  “You killed two horses and almost killed yourself and your friend in a reckless chase.”
“Pardon me,” Finnian said squinting up at the knight.  “But do I know you?  Your voice sounds very familiar.”
“Enough,” the knight said emphatically as he turned back to the woman in the cart, raising his sword.  “How did you come here?”
“Because I brought her you foolish mortal,” said an irritated, female voice coming from nowhere specific, and yet seemingly everywhere at once.
“Who said that?” the knight demanded.
“Look down,” the voice came again.
The knight looked down from his steed to see the baleful eyes of the black mare looking up at him.  The shaggy black beast drew itself up, standing on its two hind legs and towering over the knight on his charger.
The knight’s own horse began to step back, but he held the reigns fast, forcing it to stay its ground.  “Who are you?”
“I am Malmira,” the horse replied.
“The goddess?” Tarsus asked confusedly.
“Yes,” the horse nodded.  “I am flattered to find there is a mortal so far from my country that knows of me.”
“Thank you,” Tarsus said, bowing low.  “I enjoy learning of the gods and their adventures.  Tis a childhood fancy that has stayed with me.”
“Who is Malmira?” the knight asked, turning to Tarsus.
“She is the keeper of Malmot: its guardian and queen.  Much like Malthus is our Godking here in Malthanon,” Tarsus answered.
The knight slowly sheathed his sword.  He dismounted and got to one knee, bowing to the towering goddess.  Tarsus followed his example.
“Forgive me my ignorance my lady,” the knight said reverently.  “I am a faithful servant of Malthus, and I only sought answers in service of His peace.”
“I am no lady,” Malmira said.  “But your words touch me.  They are heartfelt, and true.  It pleases me to see mortals serve faithfully their masters.”
“So why have you come here lady goddess?” Finnian called out.  Tarsus lifted his head to look to his friend and his eyes went wide with shock: the fool was standing.  
“It seems not all mortals in Malthanon are reverent,” Malmira said.  “I am here because I want to be.  I wanted to stretch my legs and have a run.  In the same way I am answering your questions because I want you to have answers.  And beyond that, I wanted to get away for a while…with a friend.”
“This mortal woman is your friend?” Finnian pressed.  “I wish Malthus were my friend.  I used to pray to him all the time but he never answered me.  Truth be told, I don’t think he answers anyone anymore.”
“Finnian, hold your tongue!” the knight shouted from his prostrate position.  He did not even turn to address the blaspheming militiaman directly.
“Forgive me Malmira,” the woman kneeling in the cart said pleadingly.  “I did not know it was you.  I would’ve behaved better.  I thought you were only a horse.”
“Child,” Malmira said resignedly.  “I wanted you to believe I was a horse.”
Malmira stood there a moment; tall on her hind legs.  Then, a swirl of black cloud surrounded her, and when it cleared there stood a woman dressed in simple maid’s clothes.
“You!” the woman in the cart screamed out in delighted recognition.  “She is the woman I was speaking to in the pub.”  
“Yes child,” the goddess now shaped like the stranger replied.
The woman in the cart began to speak.  But she stood frozen a moment, as though the words had fallen from her mind.  
All of them were silent, for they all felt a strange force come over them.  It was as though they were being fixed to where they knelt (except for Finnian, who was standing).  Tarsus knew he wasn’t able to move or speak, even if he tried.  He was rooted, like a tree, to the road; and in that moment, he wanted to be.  
In the pit of his stomach, Tarsus felt a pull.  Without knowing why, he felt as though a piece of him had been plucked from his body; like an apple being plucked from a tree.
“My ladies,” Tarsus looked up again.  It was the white knight who had spoken.  The armor clad warrior stood up in front of the maid and took her hand in his.  
“It is not safe for two travelers to be in the mouth of the forest this close to nightfall.  I would gladly see you home.”
“Thank you sir,” the maid replied with a sad smile.  “But there is no need.  It is a long way home for us, and you do not know the way.”
The maid pulled up the breeching Dees of the cart which had fallen to the ground.  There was a woman in the cart.  Tarsus could not remember why.  But for some reason, he didn’t find it odd.
The maid turned toward the opening of the forest path, leading out to the Meeks Fields.  She began walking, pulling the cart behind her.
The three men came in close together and watched as the two women disappeared into the open countryside.
“Hang on,” Finnian said.  “Who were they?”
“I do not know,” Tarsus answered.  “But I do not wish to give them chase.”