Friday, January 22, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 4: Sword and Service

        Tarsus stood at the ready.  A large, haphazardly armored man with a rusty, notched sword stood poised opposite him.  The look in the warrior’s eyes was clear: he meant to harm Tarsus, if he could.
Tarsus drew his own sword, a larger hand-and-a-half bastard blade that was polished and much sturdier than his enemy’s weapon.  He focused on his opponent across the way, and spared a thought for what Drake had told him so many years ago.
“Forget everything but the most immediate threat,” Drake had said.  “That threat is a problem with only two solutions: either you overpower it, or you surrender to it.  Until that solution is decided, there is nothing more important.”
Tarsus had become expertly good at focusing on a single, immediate threat; and his opponent was now receiving the full force of that gift.
The menacing warrior broke into a dead run, raising his sword high over his head.
“AHHHHHHHH!”
The sword came down in an arching strike that would have split Tarsus Cole in two…had it connected.
Tarsus sidestepped out of the path of the blade just in time.  His mind jumped to the next maneuver.  After a failed arching strike, the likeliest thing to do would be to bring the sword around in a horizontal, circular sweep.  Every sword master Tarsus had ever studied with insisted that this correction was the only way to come out of a failed downward stroke because it was easy to transition into and could be executed quickly.  Clearly, Tarsus’s opponent had the same instructors.  That was not surprising; living in Briarden afforded only a handful of folk capable of teaching swordsmanship.  Even fewer of those were actually skilled swordsmen themselves who could show their students the maneuvers they taught.
Tarsus automatically brought his own blade up into a defensive stance.  All he had to decide was from which direction his opponent’s sword would strike.  It wasn’t much of a choice.  His opponent, like himself, was right handed.  Tarsus brought his blade to his left side.
CLANG!
He had anticipated correctly.  Tarsus gave a small smirk.  He always anticipated correctly.
Jumping to the next maneuver he’d learned, Tarsus pushed his opponent’s sword away with his own blade, pushing the warrior off balance.  Then Tarsus moved in.  
VERTICAL STRIKE!
The opposing warrior struggled to bring his sword up in time to shield himself.
THRUST!
The enemy pivoted, turning his body profile to Tarsus, to avoid being skewered.  Lucky for him Tarsus’s thrust was slow.
HORIZONTAL SLASH!
The warrior brought his own sword up just in time for the edge of Tarsus’s blade to meet the flat side of his own long sword.
KICK TO THE BACK OF THE KNEE!
The enemy warrior went down.  Before he knew what happened, he felt the edge of Tarsus’s bastard sword at the side of his neck.
“Bravo Tarsus,” the enemy said.  “You got me…as always.”
The smirk melted off of Tarsus’s face.  He stood still, looking down at his opponent as his mind played those final words over and over, “…as always.”
Tarsus was suddenly aware of how easy it was to beat this man.  He suddenly thought back to all the men in Briarden he had fought or fought with.  He remembered the handful of sword masters they had all been to; the same skills, counters and combinations they had all learned as the only good way to fight.  Then he remembered Drake - the best warrior Briarden had ever seen.  He remembered how Drake went to any sword master he could find, learned their method and then moved on to the next one.  He remembered seeing Drake develop a different style of fighting altogether, based on what he liked most about each sword master’s technique.  He remembered Drake forming his own maneuvers and philosophies based on the constant dueling he’d done with other men about town and the “good fights” he had found by traveling when the town ran out of men who posed any challenge to him. 
In that moment, Tarsus truly understood what Drake had been telling him in The Good Shepherd the night before.  
“Enough!”
An older, stout man approached the two warriors.  He was an imposing sight: taller than Tarsus and hairier than any man had a right to be.  He struck everyone he came across as more animal than man, and so he had been christened “the bear.”  His real name though, was Thaddeus Berk; and he was the commander and trainer of the Briarden militia. 
Along with the bear, a group of men and women suddenly emerged from behind the bushes and trees in the forest clearing where Tarsus’s fight had just taken place.  They were all around the pair of fighters, and as they emerged they began to close in.  It seemed to Tarsus that the whole of the Briarden militia was set to hide as he and his fellow militiamen fought in this training exercise.  Finally, Finnian emerged as the last member of the militia to have been hidden.  As they all came close, Tarsus saw that the group in the very back was armed with drawn bows.
“Ya were sloppy,” Berk chastised as he approached Tarsus.  “This lot was ready to rush ya, and the group in the back could have shot ya at any moment.  Gods know ya left yourself wide open.”
“I was focused on my foe,” Tarsus said.
“Only on him,” Berk pointed to the still kneeling militiaman with Tarsus’s sword to his neck.  “I tell ya all the time, ya have ta keep yer eyes open.  Focusing on only one thing…it blinds ya.”
“Not if that one thing is about to kill you,” Tarsus retorted.  But the argument was half-hearted.  He knew that Thaddeus was right.  But he also knew he wasn’t good enough to focus on more than one thing in a battle.  But still, there was a piece of him inside that pushed him to defend himself.
“I know ya believe that because Drake can focus the most immediate threat, that you can too,” Thaddeus said, moving in close to Tarsus.  “But yer not the fighter Drake is.  He’s a prodigy.  You’re pretty good.  Ya have ta learn how to take it all in, because in war…there are no rules.  On the battlefield, everything can kill ya.”
Tarsus lowered his eyes.  He had nothing else to say.  Even that piece of him that wanted to fight back was speechless.  
  “Commander Berk!”
Tarsus looked up, beyond Thaddeus Berk to see a knight in battered blue armor riding toward them on a grey horse.  A full helm covered the rider’s face.
The knight slowed to a canter and stopped directly in front of the bear.
“I need your help,” the mysterious knight said.
“Do ya?” the commander asked suspiciously.  “Then you’ll get off yer horse and talk to me face to face…man to man.”
The blue knight dismounted and stepped in close to Thaddeus Berk.
“Is this better?” the knight asked.
“Ha,” Berk gave himself a small laugh.  He shook his head slightly, then looked back at the knight standing before him.  “Not really, no.  I like to look a person in the eye when they ask me for something.  Common courtesy, ya understand.  Take off yer helm girl.”
The knight stood there a moment with the horse’s reigns in hand.  Tarsus was confused.  This knight was taller than most of the men in the militia, and stouter too.  Clearly he, or she, had seen battle.  The blue armor was faded and worn, with scratches and dents from combat evident all over.  
The knight let the reigns of the horse fall and brought armored hands up to remove the helm.  A tangle of red curls were the first to fall as the helm was lifted off.  Tarsus was struck by the beautiful face of the woman underneath.  She was pale, but not sickly, and she had piercing green eyes; eyes that, right now, were looking defiantly up at Thaddeus Berk.
“I come on behalf of the GodKing Malthus,” the woman said with intense sincerity.  “I am to commandeer your militia for the sake of all Arden.”
“Oh ya?” Thaddeus questioned, without any sincerity whatsoever.
“Yes,” the woman said, speaking quickly and forcefully.  “This is a more meager force than I was expecting, but the GodKing wills it and he cannot be questioned.  You are relieved commander.”
“Really?  Well, that’s nice,” Berk replied with a wry smile.  “Tell me, what world-saving quest is this that ya need Briarden’s militia?”
“A great evil approaches,” the woman portended.  “If we are to be saved, I must find Malthir and return it to the GodKing.”
“A great evil….awfully vague, I’d say,” Berk answered.
“What, in all of Arden, is Malthir?” Finnian asked from somewhere toward the back of the circle.
“The sword of Malthus,” Tarsus explained.  “A powerful blade, forged by the GodKing.”
“It’s more than a mere sword,” the woman clarified.  “It is an extension of Malthus himself: like a hand or arm.  It completes him.  And he cannot fight off this evil unless he is complete.”
“And ya need us to find it for ya, is that right?” Berk pressed on.
“The sword was locked away in the Summa Temple on the Under Isle, out in the vast expanse of the Sheltered Sea.  There is no telling what safeguards have been put in place to keep it there.  So Malthus guided me to you and gave me authority of command to take back what is his,” the woman concluded forcefully.
“How do you know all of this?” Tarsus found himself asking.
“Malthus told me,” the woman said maintaining eye contact with Berk.
“Where?” Berk asked.
  “Why does that matter?  He is your god and king,” the blue knight said.
“Where?” Berk asked commandingly.
“He came to me…in a dream,” the blue knight said.
“I see,” the bear said patiently.  “Then let me fill in some of the holes of your story.  You dreamt the GodKing came to ya and told ya to go on this quest for a magic sword that would save the world.  Ya seem very sincere, so I’m guessing ya went to the KingsGuard with this and they laughed ya out of their halls.  Then ya probably went to the Malthanon Guard who did the same, and finally the Malthanon Militia.  When every force in Malthanon turned ya down, I would think ya visited every armed force from Bahadur to Brava looking for help.  Any town that served Malthus, anyway.  And now you’re here, demanding that a third rate militia was destined to travel with ya on an impossible quest.  And third rate we are.  Look around ya lass; non here are great warriors.  We stop bar fights and chase off foxes to protect our sheep.  We don’t fight great battles or go on dangerous missions.”
Tarsus looked around at the warriors in the circle surrounding him.  They all had downcast eyes.  None of them seemed as though they wanted to defend their abilities or honor, but instead accepted what Berk was saying.
As for Tarsus, it felt strange to hear the man who trained them, who only a moment ago chastised him for not being prepared for battlefield conditions, admit that none of them could actually survive a real battle.
“Like I said, I donna think you’re a liar,” Berk went on.  “Ya have stones.  More so’n most of the men in this lot.  But I also think you’re blooming crazy.  I say, go to The Good Shepherd, have a tall beer, and get some sleep.  If ya decide to settle here, I’d be glad to make you a part of this militia.  But there’s not a chance in all of Summanus’s underworld that I’m letting ya take my small force on an insane quest.”
“I see,” the woman said bravely.”
Tarsus saw no hint of disappointment in her eyes.  But the fire from just a few moments ago had been diminished.  She suddenly looked tired, and Tarsus had no trouble imagining that her journey to find help on her quest had played out exactly as Berk had described.
“Thank you commander, for your advice,” she continued.  “But I cannot give up.  Arden is in peril, and if I can save her…then I must do all I can.”
She turned from the bear, grabbed the reigns of her horse, and began walking away from the Briarden militia with head held high.
“Wait!”
She turned back.
  Tarsus found himself, despite himself, moving to the front of the circle.  He moved ahead of Thaddeus Berk even; so that there was nothing between him and the lady knight save for a few paces of empty space.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Why?” 
“You are brave,” Tarsus answered.  “To leave your home, all that you knew, just to follow a dream.  You are strong, to approach Commander Berk with such conviction and leave him with just as much, even in the face of failure.  You…inspire me, my lady.  And if you permit it, I would put a name to that inspiration.”
Tarsus felt hot.  He could not believe he had said that out loud in front of his fellow militiamen and women: in front of the bear.  It felt as though his body was outside of his control.  He imagined himself a ghost; floating on the outside of it all, waiting to see what actions he took next.  
Yet while his body was foreign to him, Tarsus Cole felt it was following the orders of his heart.  And his heart, while he may not have been thinking about it in those moments, was forcing him to pursue exactly what he wanted.  This woman was an opportunity; an opportunity that promised something different from Briarden, from the militia, and from his failed dream; a dream that, Tarsus had to admit, only Drake could achieve.  
“I am Cecily,” the woman answered.  “Cecily Thorn.”
In another motion to follow the orders of his heart, Tarsus fell to one knee.  He grabbed the flat of his sword-blade with one hand and the grip with the other.  He lifted it up, presenting it to this woman he did not know.
        “Cecily Thorn, my name is Tarsus Cole,” he proclaimed as he bowed his head to her.  “I offer you my sword…and my service.”

Friday, January 8, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 3: The Gift at the Good Shepherd

             The Good Shepherd was a humble tavern.  Bare wooden tables, with benches and stools, lined one half-side of the place while the other half-side was consumed with a bar.  It ran from the back-end of the building almost entirely to the front, but stopped just short of the entrance to the tavern.  Opposite the entrance, at the very back of the tavern, was a modest fireplace.    
It was always striking to Tarsus, this fireplace.  The woodwork adorning it was simple, but done with a measure of skill.  Atop the hearth, at either end, were columns carved in the shape of sheep.  They stood on hind legs, supporting a bench shaped like a wide shepherd’s staff that curved at one end.  Above the bench was carved the shoulders and head of a shepherd.  He was looking down on the sheep with a smile.  
It was only natural the fireplace looked that way.  Briarden was a way station for shepherds traveling along the northern continent of Arden.  With so many comings and goings, the village itself had an heir of impermanence to it.  Very few folk actually settled in Briarden, and those that did had no need of anything elaborate.  It was a village that people came to with every intention of leaving one day; it just so happened that for some, that day was later rather than sooner.  
As such, the Good Shepherd looked very much like any cottage or barn or storefront in Briarden in that it looked precisely like what it was meant to be.  It was a tavern, not good for much more than a warm bed and a tall pint.
Tarsus sat with Finnian at a table in the far back.  It was their favorite table; an out of the way place for them to drink and laugh without feeling as though they were shoved together with folk they did not know.  Though, they needn’t have worried about that tonight.  Tonight, the drinking room of the Good Shepherd was sparsely peopled.  So sparse, in fact, that the laughter of Tarsus and Finnian rang throughout the drinking room, to the annoyance of the few other patrons sitting alone with their faces in their tankards.
The door to the tavern swung open.  All save for Tarsus and Finnian turned to see a white knight enter.  They were stunned.  This man wore the white armor of the knights of Malthus: of the KingsGuard.  At each of his shoulders, holding up his majestic white cloak were the seals of the GodKing.  Both were the same: a cone, narrow at the top and widening as it reached the bottom.  It was embedded perfectly atop a golden disk, and encircled by a raised rim of gold so that the cone showed no beginning and no ending.  This was the Sunstroke of Malthus, and his knights represented these rays.  For while Malthus had been a sun eclipsed from the world for a thousand years, ever his light still shone on the people by way of his knights.  Ever would they expose the darkness in the kingdom of Malthanon. 
Everyone knew what the Sunstroke meant, but none here had ever seen one before.  Indeed, no one from Briarden had ever seen a knight of the KingsGuard, save for Tarsus and Finnian.  The GodKing’s city was not a far trek; perhaps a few hours away by horse.  But what purpose could such great knights have in so simple a place as the Good Shepherd?
The knight approached the bar.  He took off his great helm and looked down on the only barmaid serving ale.  She was young and plain, but he knew her.  He offered her an old smile; one he had not used since last he’d been home.
“In my dreams, I had never thought to see you here Madeline,” he said to her.
“Pardon milord,” Madeline replied in a shaking voice.  She lowered her gaze, choosing to focus on the bar.  “What can I get ya?”
“Surely I do not look so different?”
“No,” Madeline agreed quickly without looking up.  “I know your face.”
Drake turned to see his two friends.  They were sitting at their favorite table, drinking and laughing, still oblivious to the fact that he had entered.  
“Two ales, if you please,” he said turning back to her.  “I’ll be at that table of fools in the back.”
He put a gold coin to the bar and slid it across to her, placing it just beneath where she had kept her focus.
“For your trouble,” Drake said as he turned and walked to the table.
Finnian was in the middle of regaling Tarsus with a saucy tale of his prowess when an armored hand came down on his shoulder. 
“His highness has graced us at last,” Finnian said as he stood and fell into Drake with a full-bodied hug.
“Sit Finnian,” Drake pushed the younger man up onto his feet.  “How can you be drunk already?  It has only been an hour and a half since last I saw you.”
“You have answered your own question,” Finnian replied with a wide smile.  “No need to worry though.  I’m not drunk, but when I am I will tell you.  I promise.”
Finnian stumbled back down onto the bench across from Tarsus.  Drake set his helm onto the table and sat next to the smaller man. 
Tarsus had to smile at this sight: a knight and a warm-hearted braggart.  These were his friends.  How lucky he was, to have such wonderful friends.  
        He caught himself suddenly.  The ale had done its work.  Very good.  That meant he needed more.  
        Behind the unlikely pair, Tarsus could see the bar in the distance.  He waved and saw Madeline nod and begin to make her way over.  Remembering Finnian’s tale, Tarsus had what he thought to be a very funny idea.   
“Finnian!” Tarsus bellowed, likely louder than he had meant.  “Are you happy?” 
“Very happy,” Finnian said, putting a hand on Drake’s shoulder.  “I have my two best friends here.  Why shouldn’t I be?”
“Good!  A question, if you please,” Tarsus clapped his hands together.  
“Tarsus.  Don’t,” Drake warned sternly.
“No no no no…Drake.  It will be fine.  Look at me.  Drake, look at me.  Are you looking at me?” Tarsus asked leaning forward to show how serious he was.
“Obviously I am,” Drake replied dryly as he gave Tarsus a level gaze that the larger man could not, in any way, reciprocate.
“This will be funny,” Tarsus said without the trace of a smile.  “Finnian…”
“What?” Finnian said, snapping to attention.
“Won’t this be funny?” Tarsus asked.
“Of course it will,” Finnian said without hesitation.
“Tell Drake.”
“It will be funny Drake.”
“Good,” Tarsus said and then paused.  It seemed his eyes were stuck in thought, looking up above somewhere, at something over both Drake and Finnian’s heads.  After a moment, he returned.  “Tell truly, what do you think of Madeline?”
“Don’t answer,” Drake ordered Finnian.
“You’re not my father,” Finnian replied defiantly.  “My father’s dead.  Why must you bring up such painful memories Drake?  What was the question?”
“Madeline,” Tarsus reminded.
        “Right.  Yes,” Finnian sat in thought a moment, stroking his chin whiskers as though he had a full beard.  “Madeline’s…plump.  Too plump for me.  I like smaller women…with fuller hair.  I think she’s losing hers.”
“Your ales milord,” a small female voice said.
Finnian whipped around, almost falling off the bench.  Drake turned more slowly, soberly.  There, standing above Drake and Finnian holding two pints of ale, was Madeline.  Her eyes were moist, but her face was steady.  
Drake took the pints from her.  “Thank you, my lady.”
“Madeline, I’m sorry,” Finnian said, standing quickly and hopping over the bench that separated himself and the barmaid.  “I was tricked.”
“You were bein honest. S’ok,” Madeline said without looking at him.
Tarsus laughed again.
“It’s not funny,” Finnian shot back, like a child who’d lost at a game.
“No, it is not,” Drake said finally.  He gently placed the pints on the table and slid off of the bench.  He stood next to Madeline now, a shining light in this den of debauchery.  “Tarsus Cole, you have wronged this woman.  Apologize to her.”
“Drake, this was all in jest…” Tarsus began.
“I said…” Drake interrupted loudly, looking only at Madeline.  “Apologize!”
“I am not a child,” Tarsus replied, his face sobering at the reprimand.
“No,” Drake agreed as he turned to look down at Tarsus.  “You are a grown man.”
Once again Tarsus had that feeling in the pit of his stomach; the same one he had in the Wandering Wood earlier that day.  His friend Drake was there, looking down on him…judging him.  He felt his cheeks begin to redden, and he felt ashamed.
“I am sorry my lady,” Tarsus obeyed, holding Madeline’s gaze only for a moment before he had to look away.  “I promise you, I did not mean to be cruel.”
Madeline nodded her acceptance of both apologies.  She turned to look up at the knight standing next to her.  Red returned to her cheeks and her eyes widened worshipfully.  She got onto her toes and offered Drake a small kiss on his cheek.
Drake took Madeline’s hand, bent low and kissed the top of it.
Madeline blushed even more at this.  She tried to repress a smile, but signs of it were exploding on her face.  She took her hand back, gave an awkward curtsey and turned running back to the bar.
Drake turned back to Tarsus with a stern, fatherly expression.  As Finnian took back his seat, Drake picked up the two pints he had purchased and put one each in front of his friends.
“This is my final gift to you,” he said.
Drake picked up his helm from the table then, and strode for the door of the Good Shepherd.
Both Tarsus and Finnian rushed after him.
“Wait!” Tarsus called.
Drake stopped.  He did not turn back to them, but stood facing the door.
“Turn around,” Finnian said.
“I will not,” Drake answered.
“What has happened to you?” Tarsus asked.
        Drake did not answer.  For a few moments, there was nothing but silence.   
“Why are you acting like a fool?” Finnian finished the thought Tarsus began.  “You’ve always been serious, even as children.  Ordered us around all the time.  I remember once running so fast in the forest that I tripped over a branch and flew into a tree.  I was bleeding.   You found me.  I can’t remember what we were playing, but you stopped the game.  Pulled all the children together and started commanding them.  One went to find the apothecary, one went back to bring my mum, another to bring some water.  But you stayed with me: told me you’d watch over me until help came.”
“And do you remember when I first came to Briarden?” Tarsus went on.  “I was different.  Bigger than most.  No one wanted to talk to me because they thought I would eat them.  I felt ashamed.  But you talked to me.  More than that, you taught me how I could use what made me different to make me better.”
“A waste of time, it would seem,” Drake said evenly.  “There is no point in continuing this conversation. Ever.  I am leaving Briarden tonight and I am never coming back.  We will not see each other again.  Those ales were meant to be my goobye,” Drake said.
“Never?” Tarsus asked incredulous.  “But…we’re friends.”
“I have no friends here,” Drake replied, calm and calculated.  “You have always misunderstood the way I see things.  I have dreamed of becoming a knight from the first day I knew they existed.  But I knew that to become one, it would take more than skill in battle.  Knights live by honor, courtesy, humility; so I trained as much in those things as with swords and axes.  What you took for friendship…was only practice.”
Neither Tarsus nor Finnian had anything to say.  No one had anything to say.  The tavern had grown silent, and what few eyes were in the place were on these three men.
“You suit each other as friends,” Drake continued.  “Because you are both the same: dreamers.  You talk and you joke and you laugh and you drink.  You work hard every now and again.  Tarsus, you are skilled with a broad sword.  Finnian, your agility and foot speed always surprise me.  But you have not pushed your gifts any further than their natural limits.  I have.  That is why I am where I am, and you are where you are.”
“Where is that?” Tarsus pressed.
“Beneath me,” Drake answered quickly.  “Let me give you this piece of advice.  To do is to be, and every moment of every day allows you to be what you do.  If I am noble it is because I choose to act nobly.  If I am chivalrous it is because I choose to act chivalrously.  Doing is all that matters; and greatness will only come to those who strive for it.  It cannot be inherited, and it cannot be conjured with words or…dreams.  Today, I am Sir Drake Mathix of the KingsGuard; knight of the GodKing Malthus.  I will serve, and I will be, and I will do…and when I die my name will live on in song.  Goodbye.”
Drake walked on, pushing the door open and disappearing into the darkness without.  
“Twenty seven summers I’ve been alive,” Finnian said out loud.  “I have never wanted to hit something so much as right now.”
Tarsus didn't say anything.  He fixed on the door, as though a shade of Drake was still standing there; confronting him with the shadows of himself that were, and that might have been.  The knight’s words echoed over and again in his mind, and he knew they were right.  He knew Drake was right.  
Finnian was the first to turn back and walk to the table.  He sat down heavily on his bench.  Tarsus followed soon after, sitting across from his only friend.
The two did not even look at each other.  Absently, each of them lifted their tankard at the same time.  They did not bother to toast.  Instead, they both simply took a sip.
As one, they each threw their heads back a bit in surprise.  They put their tankards down and looked at one another.
“ How is it?” Finnian asked.
“Bitter,” Tarsus replied.
“Yes it is,” Finnian said, breaking into a wide smile.
Tarsus could not help but give a small laugh.
          Then they each picked up their tankards, and drank again.