Saturday, September 17, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 19: Hellos and Goodbyes

     Tarsus raised a hand to shield himself from the shock of sunlight.  It was bright to his eyes, though the sun had sailed past its zenith and was well on its way to the horizon to mark the end of his first and only day in this limbo.    
     An instant ago he passed through utter darkness: a void at the edge of an encroaching forest.  Now the darkness had passed, and he found himself in the middle of a village square without much time left to claim what he had come for: Malthir.
     He was not surprised to find the square in complete ruin.  Remnants of stone walls stood at varying heights and crumbling brick lay strewn, covering the dry earth.  What small homes once filled this village center were now dust, picked up by gusts of wind and carried far away; even desolation was not enough, no memory of this village would be allowed to remain.
     The wind picked up, and Tarsus lifted his arm to his face protecting himself from the onslaught of debris that besieged him.  He took in his surroundings as best he could, but as the breezes turned into gales it became impossible to see more than outlines of what once was. 
     He made his way to the central structure; the only building that looked complete enough to offer him shelter from the dust storm.  He tripped several times, catching his feet on stray bricks and loose slabs of stone.  One trip brought him to his knees, and upon hitting the littered earth the wind redoubled its assault with renewed fury.  Small stones were striking him now with a force strong enough to leave welts, and the dust was bombarding his nose and throat.
     The village was trying to suffocate him.
     Tarsus looked up from where he knelt, and he found himself at the foot of the building he had been aiming for.  Not quite clear to him, but no longer an outline, he saw that the place was a tavern, and it was still in tact.  More than in tact; he could make out candle light shining inside through the windows.  Whereas the village around him had deteriorated to shambles of its former self, the tavern had not.  It was immune to whatever plagued this place.  It was whole; more than whole, it was alive. 
     “I have to go inside,” he knew.
     The wind was still pummeling him, but that was not what prompted Tarsus Cole into that tavern.  He knew this place: its walls, its windows, the dim glow of the candles.  Even though the wind did its best to veil it with its grey gusts, Tarsus knew it.  He launched himself upwards, hurtling forward to the front door and pushing himself through.
     Once inside, Tarsus quickly closed the door behind him.  With eyes closed, he leaned against the inside of it, savoring the deep breaths he could now take and feeling grateful for the only refuge in the UnderIsle to give him respite.  Yet there was a challenge to face and not much time left.  Tarsus opened his eyes and turned around.
     It took less than an instant for him to recognize where he was and why this place had seemed so familiar.  The long benches and bare tables looked exactly the same as when he last saw them weeks ago before he started his journey.  He let his eyes run over them, looking the length of the long bar from start to end and finally settling on that fireplace at the very back of the room.  Even in this limbo, the sight of a soft glow that shone on sheep and shepherd comforted him.       
     Yet with fire lit and the smell of fresh ale wafting through the place, the Good Shepherd Tavern seemed to be empty.  Tarsus saw no patrons or workers anywhere.  
     Abandoned though it seemed, the village drinking hole was perfectly in tact.  No signs of the ruin that had overcome the square outside: a square that Tarsus concluded must have belonged to Briarden…or this island’s version of Briarden: were to be found in here.  The drinking room looked inviting as always, with chairs pushed out ready to welcome a tired traveler who wanted nothing more than to rest his feet and enjoy a pint.
     “But this is not the Good Shepherd,” Tarsus reminded himself.  This was the UnderIsle; a spiritual island that seemed…alive, somehow: alive, and malleable.  It was molding itself to reflect everything he had ever wanted back at him, all to protect the sword.
     Tarsus moved, breaking his reverie with action.  He walked to the fireplace, and as he approached that kindly wooden shepherd, he turned left.  
     He was not surprised to find Finnian sitting at their table; the table at the very back that the two of them had claimed as their own when they were deemed old enough to be allowed to drink in the tavern.
     Finnian looked up, greeting Tarsus with smiling eyes and a raised half-pint.  A full pint sat, untouched, across the table from the younger Pell.  After indulging in a long gulp, he gestured to it with his own half-finished ale, inviting Tarsus to sit where the sunsword always sat when the two of them drank at the Good Shepherd.
     Tarsus approached his friend, pulled the chair out, and sat down.  He took up his tankard and raised it in salute to his friend across the way.
     “Cheers,” Finnian said, toasting back.
     In kind, Tarsus brought the cup to his lips and drank deep.  
     “Still bitter, eh?” Finnian asked when Tarsus had finally set his tankard down. 
     “Mm…” Tarsus agreed, his mouth full of the Good Shepherd’s home brew.  He swallowed, “I forgot how good this was.”
     “There was a time,” Finnian began, waving his tankard underneath his nose, mimicking a master brewer taking in the beer’s aroma.  “That you called this particular brew…let me see now, what did you say?  Oh yes,” Finnian cleared his throat, “intolerable swill.”
     “I never called it that!” Tarsus defended himself.
     “Oh yes you did,” Finnian fired back, a mischievous smile spreading across his face.
     “When?” Tarsus demanded.
     “Your twenty-fifth birthday,” Finnian exclaimed triumphantly.  “You walked right up to Philmore and told him his ale was intolerable swill.  The irony being, of course, that you had consumed several pints of it earlier in the night without fuss, and you continued to consume several more afterward…likewise, without fuss.”
     “Philmore?” Tarsus asked, reflectively searching his memory for who in all of Briarden was named Philmore.  He had known everyone in that village, and no one; as far as he could remember; bore that name.
     “Philmore the barman,” Finnian said.  Incredulity canvassed his face as he saw Tarsus still struggling to remember.  “The owner of the Good Shepherd!  We’ve been coming in here since we were young lads, how could you have forgotten Philmore?”
     “Oh, I remember him,” Tarsus said, relieved.  “But I never really knew him.  I remember meeting him a few times with you, but we never really spoke.  He was just…the man who gave me my beer.”
     “You know he is a master brewer,” Finnian said.  
     “I knew he brewed the beer in the Good Shepherd,” Tarsus admitted.  “I didn’t think he was a master.”
     “If you’d ever spoken to him, maybe you would have learned that,” Finnian said, taking a swig of his ale.  “The man traveled all over before settling in Briarden.”
     “No one settles in Briarden,” Tarsus said offhandedly, sipping at his own ale.
     The two of them sat in silence, one drinking while the other was finishing.  Tarsus looked at his friend across the table and smiled.  It felt good to be back here again, with Finnian, drinking together as they had so often done.  He knew there was a challenge to be overcome here, but for the life of him he could not understand what it was.  This was the most fun he’d had since boarding the Defiance.  
     “Perhaps I should just enjoy it,” Tarsus thought.  He raised his tankard again…
     “Do you remember the last night Drake was here?” Finnian interrupted.
     That was it.  The challenge had begun.  Tarsus still had no idea what the challenge was, or how Finnian was tied to it, but he felt a shift in his stomach as the uncalled for memory of Drake brought with it a host of other memories of that night.  
     “I do,” his face reddened.  An image of Madeline, the barmaid, invaded his mind.  In his drunkenness that night, he had made her cry.  It was for a joke, which made it all the more shameful.  Drake forced him to face that shame, and the next morning, he wished he had not behaved like such a selfish child.
     “Do you remember what he said to us?” Finnian pressed absently.
     “To do is to be, and every moment of every day allows you to be what you do,” Tarsus recited, staring at the surface of the amber pool in his tankard.  He had taken those words to heart then.  He never understood why.  He had heard some form of that sentiment ever since he had proclaimed he wanted to be a knight of the KingsGuard and began training with Drake and Finnian.  It had never left a lasting impression on him before.  But for some reason, that night, he was ready to hear it…and he understood.
     Tarsus looked up from his ale to meet Finnian’s eyes.  Pell was staring at him intently…searchingly.  
     “What?” he asked, becoming unsettled by Finnian’s unblinking stare.
     “What do you want, Tarsus Cole?”  
     The soft voice that came from Finnian’s mouth was different.  It echoed throughout the drinking room, but not with malice.  There was no musicality to it: no tone or timber.  It was stripped of all humanity, and felt all the stronger for it. 
     The UnderIsle wanted the truth, and before this meeting was done the truth would be laid bare.
     “I don’t know,” Tarsus answered helplessly.  It was the most honest thing he had to say in that moment.
     “You will,” the UnderIsle’s voice emanated from Finnian’s lips.  “I finally do,” Finnian’s voice rang out.  His smiling eyes raised up as he lifted his tankard and took a long draft.
     Tarsus blinked, a small smile of relief growing on his lips.  “What do you want Finnian?”
     “To go home,” Finnian said lightly.
     “Home?  Briarden?” 
     “I know Tarsus…” Finnian said, conceding before an argument could even begin.  “No one settles in Briarden.”
     “It’s the truth,” Tarsus said in frustration.  “You know it’s the truth.  Briarden is a shepherd’s village: a place of ramshackle cottages with thatched roofs.  Where this tavern stands as the most complete structure, because folk move in and out so quickly that places like schools or shops are not worth the time, effort and money to build properly.  Finnian, Briarden is for nomads who come through with their flocks.  It was not made for men like us.  Men with dreams…goals.”
     Tarsus reflected back on his life growing up in Briarden.  He thought back on the few families that were raised there, whose children he had grown up with.  Men like Rory Tomes, who Tarsus had said goodbye to over drinks at the Good Shepherd when they had both reached their nineteenth year.  There was Emilia Higgins, who announced to everyone that she was leaving at the wedding of Alistair and Moira Furroughs.  Not long after that, the Furroughses themselves left.  Moira was expecting, and she and Alistair had decided they wanted a better life for their family.  And there were more; so many more goodbyes that Tarsus knew he had said, but that he couldn’t remember saying: men and women he knew he had known, but couldn’t remember knowing.  
     But that was the way of Briarden.  In the end, everyone left.  Living there was living on a river of hellos and goodbyes; inevitable in their flow.  
     “It’s just too small, Finnian,” Tarsus finally had to say.
     “Not for me,” Finnian replied simply and with a somber smile.  “For everyone else, but not for me.  I like small.  I like knowing everyone’s name.  I like going to the Good Shepherd and hearing a bit of gossip from old Mrs. McTavish, a woman I can count on to be there before I arrive and stay long after I leave.”
     Finnian took another sip.
     “Everyone knows me, and I know them.  I know their stories.  And that’s enough for me.  I realize now, that has always been enough for me.”
     Tarsus did not know what to say.  
     “This is not the real Finnian Pell sitting in front of me,” he remembered.  “It is only a shadow.”  
     “But what is a shadow, if not a dark reflection?” Finnian mouthed in that eerie voice of the UnderIsle.  “The other side of a hard truth, stark and clear in its naked simplicity.”
     “You actually feel this way,” Tarsus realized aloud.
     Finnian offered a wan smile in reply.
     “I am sorry Finnian,’ Tarsus said.  “I thought we both wanted the same thing.”
     “So did I, at first,” Finnian said.  “But the more we chase this dream, the more I realize I don’t want to anymore.”
     Tarsus and Finnian sat across from one another in silence, yet Tarsus never felt so far away from his best friend as he did in that moment.  Their friendship had just changed dramatically, in the span of an instant, and Tarsus knew that from this moment forward, they could never be as close as they used to be.
     “Curse this quest.”
     “I’m going to ask you something,” Finnian finally broke the silence.  “I don’t expect you to say yes, but I have to ask.”
     Finnian took a hasty sip of his ale before continuing.  Tarsus followed suit.  They would both need courage for what was coming.
     “If I turned back…” Finnian began, “…gave up this quest.  If I went home…would you come with me?”
     Tarsus considered quietly, for a moment.  He opened his mouth to answer, while simultaneously searching his mind frantically for the right words to say.  Did he want to go home?  Did he want to give up?  Or did he want to go on…alone?
     Finnian looked at Tarsus neutrally.  It seemed to Cole that the UnderIsle had taken hold of his friend once more, giving the sunsword the benefit of answering without the shackles of expectant hope.  
     The earth shook.  Tarsus grabbed hold of the end of the table and looked up, keeping an eye out for loose timbers or falling debris.  As the earth stopped quaking, though, it was clear that nothing was out of place.  Nothing had fallen, there was no shaken dust in the air, not even a drop of ale had spilled.  And Finnian still sat, neutral as before, right across from him, waiting for an answer.
The sound of stone scraping across stone echoed in the drinking room of the Good Shepherd.  Tarsus followed his ears to the fireplace.  The small fire lit in the hearth still danced as  it did when the sunsword walked in, but Tarsus noticed something else.
     Behind the small fire, in place of a soot covered brick wall, there was now an opening.  What the opening led to, Tarsus could not tell.  He saw only that familiar blackness that marked his passage to the next challenge.
     He turned back to his friend.  Finnian was still staring at him, unmoved as though the earthquake had happened outside of time.  Tarsus understood; this ghost of his friend would be doomed to that spot - to this place - waiting for Tarsus's answer to a very simple question.
     Once again, Tarsus opened his mouth to speak.  Once again, no words fell from his lips.
     Finnian's eyes fell to his beer.  He lifted his tankard, taking another long draft.
The answer was given.  Tarsus began to reach for Finnian's forearm.  He wanted to assure his friend, and himself.  He wanted to offer comfort by making promises he knew he'd never keep, because this was his best friend and comfort was the least he could give his best friend.
     He stopped mid-reach.  He realized how ridiculous it was to offer a man he respected and loved empty promises for comfort.  "There is no comfort to give," he thought as he pulled his hand back.          "There is only truth."
     Tarsus stood up.  He raised his tankard in salute to Finnian Pell.  Finnian did not look up, but Tarsus drank anyway.  He drank to the memory of their friendship through so many years.  He drank to Finnian's health, long life and many blessings.  He drank to the courage of his friend: a man who knew what he wanted and decided to go after it.  And he swore, to himself, that he would always remember this goodbye.
     He finished the ale and placed the tankard on the table.  The empty cup sat across from Finnian Pell, just as it had when Tarsus arrived.  He stepped back, over the bench he was sitting on and made for the fireplace.
     Tarsus Cole did not look back as he approached the small hearth and got down on his knees.  He did not look back as he crawled through fire that licked at his palms and knees.  In truth, he did not even notice the pain.  For this was the only way forward on his quest; and for this way forward, he had paid a heavy toll.
     He entered the black, allowing darkness to envelope him once more; and as that darkness covered his eyes, the light of memory shone bright in his mind.
     "Brooding desire leads to vicious obsession.  And ambition can be both the rise, and fall of men."

Saturday, September 3, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 18: Desire

             The forest was dank on the inside.  Humidity hung heavy in the air; grains of pollen languishing in vaporous clouds that floated lazily.  The airborne moisture weaved in and out of the thick rows of trees that bordered the path on which Tarsus stood.  Broken rays of sunlight shone through; fractured by dense brambles of shrubs that grew overhead, wreathed together like a fisherman’s net.
            Tarsus wondered how shrubbery could grow so high up.  He had seen such choking vines before, littering the floors of the Wandering Wood outside Brierden.  The village had been named for those thorny bushes, and shepherds avoided taking their flocks through that forest at all costs to spare their sheep. 
Like those briers, these brambles were laden with beautiful roses.  Normally, Tarsus would welcome the sight of flowers, but these overlarge blooms only added to the densely woven briers.  They only helped in choking out more of the sunlight that fought to break through.
Tarsus’s eyes fell back to the path.  It was straight enough; extending into a wood that grew darker with every step.  Only a few feet on, the road disappeared entirely from Tarsus’s eyes. 
The sunsword walked on, hoping the shadowed path would reveal itself as he got closer to the darkness.  He was not sure how.  Perhaps his eyes would adjust to the low light.  Perhaps he was at the top of a hill, and the path descended sharply down from its vanishing point. 
No such luck.  The path simply vanished, leading into a void of utter black.  It was as though the forest suddenly ended, and only nothingness lay beyond.
Tarsus halted on the threshold of the void.  One more step, and the darkness would take him.
He contemplated what to do next, grateful for the relative quiet of the wood.  There were no birds chirping or squirrels running, not even the sound of trees rustling.
Tarsus wiped his brow as he stood staring at the black before him.  Stopped in his pursuit, his mind was able to wander to other things: like how hot he was.  So hot.  The humidity felt suffocating now.  He bent over, putting his hands to his knees to ease the strain on his breathing.  Quick and shallow, those were the only breaths he could take in now.  The air was too thick with moisture for anything else.  Moisture…
A flash of his body, drowning in the Crystal Sea, assaulted Tarsus’s mind. 
Tarsus closed his eyes tight and tried to banish the image.  He focused on his breathing. 
“So hot…”
He ignored the sensation.  In and out; that was all he had to do.  In and out.
He felt dizzy, and began swaying where he stood. 
In and out.  He focused on the sounds of his breathing, and those short, sharp breaths echoed in his ears.
He realized then how odd it was that he could only hear his own belabored breaths.  Why was no wind blowing, at least?  He needed air.  Was any getting through?
Then he realized, he could hear something else: the sounds of low groaning.  It was faint, and so natural to the wood that it must have been there since he entered. 
Tarsus shot upright and looked around.  There were trees and thick bushes crowding him on either side. 
“Were they that close to the path before?” he wondered.
He turned around, intending to go out the way he had come.  He needed fresh air, and time to better assess how to get through this wood.
More thick-bowled trees and lush flower bushes stood right behind him, blocking the path back to the forest entrance.
“They were not here before,” Tarsus asserted, coming to understand the truth of this place.  “It is growing all around me.”
He was stuck on the last stretch of visible path.  Behind him was the encroaching forest, and before him was an impenetrable blackness.
“Enemy of the forest, beware,” a lilting, feminine voice reverberated from everywhere at once.
Tarsus searched for the speaker through the trees and brambles, but he saw nothing. 
His breathing quickened, and his face was covered in such thick sweat that he found himself wiping it from his brow every few moments just to keep his sight. 
From out of the blackness that was Tarsus’s only way forward, stepped a knight clad in silver armor; face covered underneath a full helm.  Whoever the warrior was, Tarsus was certain that she was female.  Her form, mostly obscured by her armor, could not be entirely hid beneath metal and silver. 
Taking in her shape: the gaps in the plate and the curves of her shape underneath: he was momentarily distracted by a sudden sense of longing for this woman he did not know.  Images flooded his mind: the two of them embracing one another, allowing the forest to grow all around them and cover them from the view of the world.
He shook his head, though his thoughts were no so easily dismissed. Like a lioness circling a wounded gazelle, they lingered. 
She drew a sword and held it up in a readied battle stance.  The implication was clear.
“A fight?” Tarsus thought; panic rising inside of him.  “I can barely breathe.”
“Why have you come here?” the knight asked.  “What do you want?”
“I’ve come…” Tarsus wheezed.  He took several breaths in rapid succession.  “…for Malthir.”
“Ye who seeketh the sword, beware,” she said in that lilting voice that echoed from everywhere all at once.  “Devices of gods are not meant for the hands of men.  It could destroy you.”
“Have to…” Tarsus managed.
“Why?” the knight prodded.
“My friend,” Tarsus pushed the words out.  “Cecily.”
“Ah,” the woman exhaled with the intimation of intimate understanding.  “Love.”
Tarsus did not respond, he only breathed as quickly as he could.  He told himself he did not care what this woman thought about his reasons; about what conclusions she jumped to. 
“But I do,” he thought to himself.  He did not know why, but those lingering thoughts from before: those desires: fell into his mind again like overripe fruit falling from brittle branches.
The knight lifted her free hand to her helm, removing it and dropping it onto the newly moss-covered path. 
Cecily’s eyes bore into Tarsus’s own, past the sword she still held up.
“How…” Tarsus began.  He was forced to take in a few more breaths.  “…are you here?”
“You tell me Tarsus Cole,” Cecily replied with grim satisfaction.  “You were the path.  This UnderIsle is yours.  How am I here?”
Tarsus did not answer.  He could not.  He searched his mind, but he had no knowledge of the lore surrounding the UnderIsle.  Before Cassius told him otherwise, he believed the UnderIsle to be a myth.
“The only way through the black,” Cecily teased, “the only way on, is with a clear purpose.  Honest…focused…brutal.  The path to purpose is through desire.  So tell me, Tarsus Cole, what do you desire?”
“The sword,” Tarsus answered quickly.
“Lies,” she hissed gently. 
Suddenly, she materialized before him; her face so close to his that the tips of their noses nearly touched.  She exhaled slowly, putting a hand to his chest.
“The sword is a sigil…an emblem; etched onto the coffin of the desire you bury inside.”
Tarsus did not look down.  He tried to keep his eyes locked on hers; tried to lend his demeanor and air of calm and confidence.  But the beat of his heart sped up to match the rhythm of his breathing.
“Your heart knows the truth,” Cecily whispered.  “It shouts it even now.  Do you hear it?”
She looked up at him, and he down at her.  Neither one of them moved; they only stood staring at each other as the forest grew around them, faster and faster.  Very soon, it would close in on them fully: binding the two in twined branches and wreathed vines.
“I…” Tarsus froze.  He was almost entirely focused on her.  Her presence had nearly drowned out everything around him.  But a crescendo of wood groans reached his ears, and he remembered the ever-growing forest.  He spared two quick glances, left and right.  The leaves had covered their feet and legs.  He could feel the light squeeze of vines wrapped around his thighs.  The forest was swallowing them whole.
“Tell me,” Cecily comforted, inching her face closer to his.  Their lips were so close now.  All Tarsus had to do was lean in, only a little, and…
“I have to go on,” he finally said.
Cecily backed her head away from his.  “You are free to.”
She stepped aside then, breaking the vines that anchored her to the earth.  The way into the black was clear, though the forest was closing in on it quickly.
“I’ll see you back on the ship,” Tarsus betrayed.  He did not mean to say that.  He wanted to say something else, but he did not know exactly what he wanted to say.  “I’ll have the sword,” was the best he could think of.
But Cecily did not respond.  She gave herself to the wood; rooted to her spot as vines and branches wrapped around her, covering her legs, torso and chest in green.
Tarsus stepped forward, freeing himself of his leafy shackles.  He stepped onto the threshold of the black: onto the last bit of visible path.  He turned back to take one final look.
Cecily was entirely gone now; consumed by the forest that was quickly filling the little remaining open space with itself.
          Tarsus turned back to the black.  His choice was made.