OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 6: The Road to Malthanon
Tarsus tried to ignore it. The pounding at his front door was bleeding into the pounding inside his own head. He’d overdone it again last night. Why did he always overdo it? He just wanted to fall back asleep, but he knew he wasn’t going to. He was up now, and had been for at least a half hour. No amount of keeping his eyes shut was going to change that.
“Cole! Open up!” he heard a female voice bark from outside.
“Wake up Tarsus. Going on this quest was your idea, remember?” came the gravelly, not-quite-awake-himself voice of Finnian Pell.
Tarsus pushed himself up from…the floor? Yes, he must have slept on the floor last night, using a nearby rug for a blanket. He looked around his small cottage. Everything was in a haze, but his furniture and belongings were undisturbed. Seemed he didn’t make it far past the door when he returned home from the Good Shepherd.
“I’m awake. I’m coming!” he shouted.
He made it to the door on unsteady feet. As he opened it, the morning sun greeted him with a light so bright it intensified his headache. His already blurry vision became blurrier as he put a hand over his eyes. The shapes of Cecily and Finnian were like the paintings of a five year old child before him: splashes of different colors that had no business being together, sprawling all over the canvass outside the lines.
“We leave today. Did you forget?” Cecily asked.
“Yes,” Tarsus answered quickly. Part of him just wanted to get a rise out of Cecily for being so rude about waking him up. But he also had, in fact, forgotten.
“How much did the two of you drink last night?” Cecily questioned.
“Hard to say,” Tarsus replied. “We were euphoric in the presence of a god.”
“That’s nothing new,” Cecily fired back. “And it’s no excuse for drinking yourself into a stupor.”
“Of course not,” Finnian butted in. “That, we did for fun.”
“Are you having fun now?” Cecily asked, turning on Finnian with a rueful smile.
“So much fun,” Finnian shot back defiantly.
“Hm,” she smirked, turning back to Tarsus. “Come along then. Grab your gear. We make for Malthanon.”
“Why?” Tarsus asked.
“I need to visit the temple of Malthus. I have questions only the priests can answer,” Cecily explained. “From there, we go to the port; and hire a ship to take us across the Sheltered Sea.”
Her eyes glazed over as she took them through her plan. It was clear to Tarsus she wasn’t telling them every step, but he could tell that she was seeing each piece play out in her mind.
Cecily turned from Tarsus and walked back to the road where three horses were tied to Tarsus’s small fence post. Cecily untied hers and climbed onto its saddle.
“Her majesty awaits,” Finnian jested, looking at Cecily sitting atop her horse and staring out to the village. “Coming Tarsus?”
“Of course,” Tarsus said. “I just need a moment to collect my things.”
“Don’t take too long Tarsus Cole,” Finnian deepened his voice and spoke with a mock-gravitas. “For godhood awaits.”
“Shut up,” the half-barbarian scoffed, pushing his friend back gently. “I’ll be right out.”
Tarsus closed the door on Finnian and the rest of the world. He looked to his left, at his own small fireplace. Leaning on it was his sheathed sword. He picked it up and strapped it to his side. Next to where the sword leaned was a small pack. Tarsus took up the pack and slung it over his shoulder. These were all the possessions he was taking on this journey. These were all the possessions meant anything to him.
Except for one. Tarsus walked around to the front of his fireplace and looked at the portrait of Malthus that hung over it. Remembering Finnian’s words from the night before, he chuckled at how ridiculous the pose of the portrait now seemed to him. Still, he saw a majesty in the figure of Malthus painted thus. He remembered seeing it when he moved into this small cottage a year ago. This was his first home away from his parents. This cottage was the first step in Tarsus’s mind to becoming a man. Beyond that, he planned to join the militia, rise in its ranks and finally be selected as a member of the KingsGuard. He would serve Malthus loyally, doing what it is he had always dreamed he would.
But that dream had not come true. Drake had been chosen for his dream; and as much as Tarsus did not want to admit it, his chance of becoming a member of the KingsGuard was now infinitely small. He had to find a new dream to chase; a new road to follow to manhood. He would save the GodKing of the realm and prove to the world that he was more than what they thought him to be.
He bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Malthus, bless this quest. Be with us all as we strive to serve you. Be with me, lord.”
It was a quiet ride through the Wandering Wood. The afternoon sun shone bright in the sky, and the bite of fall was setting in; turning leaves yellow, red and brown.
The three warriors rode single-file down the road, with Cecily in the lead. They did not speak to one another, and they all wore solemn expressions.
Tarsus felt the melancholy in the air. He wanted to say something; to bring some levity to this depressing start of their journey. For if their quest began like this, what would happen when things got really hard?
He was in the middle of forming a joke in his head when an arrow flew from out of the trees and whizzed past the front of Cecily’s horse. The beast whinnied and rose to its hind legs in panic. Cecily immediately began stroking its main and talking soothingly to it.
“Halt!” they all heard. “In the name of Malthus, you will dismount!”
None of them did. Instead, they all stayed on their horses looking around for the source of the mysterious voice.
From out of the surrounding foliage came a group of men holding various weapons: daggers, short swords, and lances mostly. They wore mismatched pieces of leather and cloth armor and they were incredibly dirty. If Tarsus had to guess, he would have assumed them to be some of the roving bandits that were said to make their homes deep in the Wandering Wood.
A fit young man carrying a jagged long sword came to the head of their group. He must have been the leader; everyone else in the party gave deference to him.
“Dismount!” he bellowed gruffly.
“No,” Cecily answered calmly.
As one, the group of bandits moved toward Cecily’s horse. Their blades were held out menacingly, and the threat of force was clear.
Cecily’s horse began panicking, backing up into Finnian’s which in turn backed up into Tarsus.
“Wait!” Cecily called out.
The bandits obeyed, as though they were not aware of who gave them the order.
Cecily dismounted and held the reigns of her horse. She pulled the animal’s head in close and stroked its head, calming it.
“Your money!” the leader of the bandits ordered. “Or we kill you and your beasts.”
“It is a cheap tactic to steal in the name of Malthus,” Cecily said icily.
“Yeah, and it never works,” the leader confided as though he were in congress with another bandit leader. “GodKing’s name don’t hold the influence it once did.”
“I can see where shooting an arrow at your targets before trying to impersonate loyal servants of the GodKing might be a bit confusing,” Cecily offered.
“Nah,” the bandit leader replied casually. “We tried it before with no arrow and no one never stopped.”
“Then why use his name at all?” Cecily asked.
The bandit leader opened his mouth to answer and then paused. The three companions could see him thinking, what with him stroking his chin and his overly elaborate “hms” and “huhs.”
“She have a point boss?” one of the cronies standing next to the leader asked.
“That she do Bernard. That she do.”
“Ugh, your grammar is atrocious,” Cecily let out.
“Hey! You’ll show the boss some respect,” Bernard said as he waved his small dagger in Cecily’s face. “He’s a philosopher he is. Smartest man I ever knew. Why, he’s teachin me seventeen year old daughter how to read!”
“Tell me friend,” Finnian said as he and Tarsus stepped up to either side of Cecily with swords already drawn. “When do those lessons take place?”
The spooked group of bandits all backed away for a moment. Then, looking amongst each other and realizing they outnumbered the warriors before them, they stepped forward again more menacingly than before.
“Every evening right after supper,” Bernard offered. “My little girl loves the readin so much, sometimes she don’t come home till next morning.”
“Understandable, of course,” Finnian said, eyeing the leader. “There are so many good books out there.”
“Long ones too,” Tarsus joined in, trying to stop himself from laughing.
“And short,” Cecily added.
That broke Tarsus and Finnian. They couldn’t help giggling like younger lads.
“Enough!” the red faced leader screamed. “You’ll give us your money, or we’ll…”
“No no,” Finnian interrupted. “You should really hear what I have to say before you finish that threat. Now, by my count there are fifteen of you. We are only three. Following me so far?”
“Yes,” the leader answered suspiciously.
“Very good,” Finnian went on. “You have weapons. Crude, but you’re all armed. Am I right?”
The leader seemed to have a sudden realization after this question. He appeared frustrated, even embarrassed as he began to speak.
“Phillip, do you have a weapon?”
“Phillip, do you have a weapon?”
“Left it back at camp sir,” a voice, presumably Phillip’s, called from the back of the group. “But I have a very large bag for all the booty.”
“Well, fourteen out of fifteen armed men is still pretty good,” Finnian comforted. “As you will notice, we are also armed. Cecily, my love? Would you be so kind?”
At his prompting, Cecily slowly unsheathed her own sword and held it up alongside the blades of her companions.
“No doubt you already observe that, though we only have three swords, our weapons are of a higher quality than yours. Myself and Cecily handling long swords made of tempered steel, and my friend here…” Finnian said as he gestured to Tarsus as a magician would at a rabbit recently pulled from a hat. “My friend holds a hand-and-a-half bastard sword. That doesn’t make him a bastard of course, I know his parents quite well and his mother makes the juiciest venison steaks you have ever tasted. He is, however, a sunsword. Well, half a sunsword as he’s half barbarian.”
The group of bandits took a step back at this.
“Ah, you’ve heard of barbarians I see,” Finnian went on. “Well, they’re loyal people to be sure. But they do have a vicious, bloodthirsty streak.”
Tarsus shot Finnian a questioning gaze. Where his friend was going with this, he had no idea.
“So, we have established that while we’re fewer in number we hold the superior weaponry. Do you know why that is?” Finnian went on.
“No idea,” the leader said. His eyes were beginning to glaze over. Tarsus thought his head might topple over with all the information Finnian was offering.
“You see, the half-barbarian and I serve in the Briarden militia together. At least we did serve, until just yesterday when we joined this lovely, full-bodied woman on a very dangerous quest.”
Now it was Cecily’s turn to give Finnian a glare. The message was clear; hurry this along.
“Clearly I have taken up too much of your time, so allow to make my point saying this,” Finnian rushed. “You may think there is strength in numbers. Ordinarily, you’d be right. But you don’t know how to use the strength you have. We do. I promise you…we do.”
As one, the three companions took a step forward lifting their swords up higher to emphasize Finnian’s point.
Most of the bandits looked scared. Finnian’s verboseness had done its work. But the leader remained at their head; a dark smirk on his face as he held his own against the companions’ threat.
“Take’em,” he said.
After a moment of checking in with each other to make sure they had heard their leader correctly, the rag-tag group of men let out several individual battle cries that did not match at all and charged Cecily, Finnian and Tarsus.
Instinctively, the three of them separated so as to give each other the room they needed to fight.
Seven men surrounded Tarsus. Of course they would. He was the largest of the three, and his bastard sword was the most impressive weapon of the lot. Combined with Finnian’s promise of “vicious and bloodthirsty” barbarians, it did not surprise him that these thugs saw him as the most dangerous threat. He raised his sword slowly, and then instantly launched himself into two unsuspecting men.
The brigands were thrown off guard. They expected Tarsus to defend, and the sunsword played on that expectation. Thaddeus Berk had taught him early on that when outnumbered in a fight, it was crucial to use the enemy’s expectations against him. By doing that, the enemy was kept surprised, and if that surprise could be sustained then the expectation could always be undercut.
Tarsus disarmed the two men in one attack. He got to his knees then, and slashed at their legs. They toppled over, holding their wounds and doing their best to crawl away.
He left them, and noticed an oncoming bandit looking to sneak up on him. From his lowered position, Tarsus vaulted onto the oncoming brigand.
So shocked was the thug, that he slowed his run and let his arms fall; standing there agape as the body of this large man loomed closer and closer. Tarsus fell on him, bringing him to the ground.
The sunsword was up quickly after that. Four men left. They surrounded him in a small circle. They looked cautious now, and even more afraid than they had been at the start. Tarsus gave them a grim smile to reassure this behavior.
Tarsus’s blade came down where one of the circling men had stood. The bandit quickly moved out of the way to avoid being hit. Tarsus followed his attack by charging the distracted bandit, slamming into the brigand with a full-bodied tackle. The man toppled over and Tarsus spun on the space where he stood, bring his sword around.
The ringing of sword on sword echoed loudly as Tarsus’s blade met another thug’s. But the defending weapon could not hold up against the force of Tarsus’s strike. The enemy blade was slammed back into the bandit’s own face, severing the thug’s relationship with his nose.
Two men left now. Tarsus went on the offensive again, moving toward them quickly with his sword ready to strike. They did not hesitate.
They dropped their weapons, turned to the forest and ran away as fast as they could.
Tarsus turned to see how his companions were faring.
Finnian handily disarmed a bandit and struck the man hard across the face with the pommel of his sword. That was the last enemy Finnian had to contend with.
Cecily, with a savage two-handed strike, launched the leader’s shaking weapon into the trees. Disarmed, she raised her sword up; the point less than inch from the shivering man’s face.
“I beg you…don’t kill me,” the leader sniveled.
But Cecily did not lower her weapon. She stood as a statue, the only thing moving slowly was her sword arm; getting closer and closer, until the point of her blade pricked the tip of the bandit leader’s nose.
“Ahhh,” the leader screamed out in a high-pitched whine.
“Cecily,” Tarsus called. “You’ve won.”
“You committed a sacrilege coward,” she said quietly. “You soiled the name of my god for your own selfishness.”
Tarsus looked back at Finnian with concern. He saw Pell moving slowly toward Cecily. What his friend planned to do, Tarsus had no idea. But he wondered if he too should try to intervene. This bandit had wronged her, to be sure, but did his pathetic attempt to rob them all merit his own murder?
“I’m sorry! I’ll never use Malthus’s name again,” the bandit leader cried.
Cecily lowered her sword and tilted her head back down the road. The leader did not need to wait for further instructions. He was out of sight before they had sheathed their swords.
Cecily looked back to Tarsus. The sunsword smiled at her, breathing out in relief.
Finnian appeared next to her, putting his arm around their red-headed leader. He offered a wide smile, looking from her to Tarsus across the way. She looked surprised, but did not seem angry at affectionate gesture.“That was fun!” he said jubilantly.