Saturday, December 24, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 25: Full Circle


        Tarsus ducked, narrowly avoiding the KingsGuard knight’s incoming sword swing and keeping his head intact.  This conflict was quickly turning from the one-upsmanship of wounded pride to something more lethal; or the knight taking swings at him was far more drunk than he had let on.  Either way, Tarsus found himself giving a small, grim smile as he watched Finnian dash by him, turn to face another oncoming knight and offer a vocal raspberry in further insult.
       Tarsus turned back to face his own courtly adversary.  The brute gave a good thrust, which Tarsus easily deflected with his own sword.  Following through on the momentum of that deflection, Tarsus raised his blade up over his head in an arc, and then brought it down atop the knight's conical helm, connecting the flat of the blade to gleaming silver.  The knight of the KingsGuard fell backward, tripping over his own feet and landing on his rear as the din of a stroke well struck rang though the drinking room of the White Light Tavern.  
       "Finnian, why did you have to insult one of their long dead sisters?" Tarsus asked, trying to reprimand his friend even as he chuckled asking such an absurd question aloud.
"Because he insulted my mother first!" Finnian yelled back with a defensive pride as he managed to sneak around the back of the knight in question, who had been giving him chase.  Finnian kicked the backs of that knight's knees out from under him, sending the soldier toppling forward.  “And I didn’t know she was dead at first!”
       “Finding out certainly didn’t abate your tongue.  And now we're running away from the KingsGuard because you had to get creative and offer a great many tits for a single tat?" Tarsus clarified sarcastically.
       "Doesn't seem like we're running to me," Finnian offered, jumping onto the top of a table and then up into the rafters of the drinking room, safely out of reach of two knights stabbing at the air to get at him.  "I'd say we're holding our own in our very first tavern brawl in Malthanon.  We've come a long way from our humble shepherd's village, haven't we?"
       "I suppose now at least everyone will know that the Briarden boys really love their mothers," Tarsus added, charging his body into the two knights who were swiping for Finnian and knocking them to the ground.
       "Attaboy Tarsus," Finnian chortled, as he dropped down from the rafters beside his friend and clapped the sunsword on the back.  "After all, what's more important in this world than our living relatives?"
       The two of them laughed out loud amid the bodies of at least five KingsGuard knights who littered the floor around them.
       “Enough!"
       Their laughter cut off sharply at the reprimanding voice that boomed throughout the drinking room.  All attention was drawn to the door of the White Light.  Standing there, looking ominously all around the place, was the captain of the KingsGuard himself.
"Hello Drake," Finnian said, offering a mischievous grin.
       Drake walked into the center of the drinking room and stopped a few short paces away from where Tarsus and Finnian stood.  He surveyed the scene, taking in the repercussions of this scuffle: broken dishes and tankards, overturned chairs and battered tables, frightened patrons huddling in the corners of the place.
       "Someone explain to me why my knights are a part of such a scene," he commanded, addressing no one in particular.
       "It was the little one, captain," one of the taller knights said, getting to his feet and removing his helm.  He put a hand to his still aching head and walked quickly past Tarsus and Finnian to address Drake directly.  "He insulted my dearly departed sister."
       "And you are a child, is that it?" Drake reprimanded.  "To allow such an insult to goad you into attacking a civilian, and then to enlist the help of your fellow knights; knights of the highest order in the land?  Indeed, you all must be children."
       “Well, we just put her in the ground not five days ago my lord.  And he was very...explicit," the knight began to pout.
       "I believe the word you're looking for is imaginative," Finnian chimed in.  "Also, there may have been some, slight, drunkenness involved," Finnian finished, teetering where he stood as though saying it out loud also made him realize how true it was.
       "Obviously," Drake glowered at Finnian.  "Men!"
       The soldiers of the KingsGuard all got to their feet and stood at attention.
       "You will find the owner of this bar.  Pay your bill, and leave whatever gold you have leftover for damages.  You will report back here everyday for as long as it takes, offering your coin and your backs, to help the owner repair or replace what you have broken.  When this tavern is restored to the way it was before this humiliating night, you will leave it with your blessings, never to return.  Is that understood?" Drake bellowed.
       "Yes captain!" the men replied as one.  They broke from their salute and, together, walked to the bar to do as Drake had commanded.
       "As for the two of you..." Drake said, turning hateful eyes onto Finnian.
       "No!" 
       Drake shifted his gaze to Tarsus, his incredulous frustration turning to mild surprise.  Finnian, stunned, also turned to look up at Tarsus, but along with his shock he also wore the widest smile he had ever donned in his life.
       "Excuse me?" Drake asked slowly, purposefully.  He was a snake in the grass; momentarily mystified by its prey, waiting to see which way it would move before launching its lethal strike.
       "You heard me just fine," Tarsus spoke confidently, looking back at Drake with an assured smirk.  "We are not your soldiers anymore."
       "We're not even his friends anymore," Finnian added lightly.
       "It's true," Tarsus agreed, "you have no right to give us orders."
       "Do you understand who it is you are talking to?" Drake asked patronizingly.  "I am captain of the KingsGuard.  I serve the GodKing Malthus more directly than even many of his own priests.  I live in his palace, in his city; the greatest city in all of Arden.  I am everything the two of you have ever wanted to be."
       "No.  You're not," Tarsus declared.  "I thought you were, once upon a time.  But seeing what this achievement has done to you.  Learning who you have become because of it...there is nothing about you I wish to be anymore."
       Tarsus raised his sword, its point touching the breastplate of Drake's armor.  The scared patrons of the tavern let out a collective gasp as Tarsus stood his ground wearing that confident smile.
       "Are you challenging me?" Drake asked, offering the sunsword his own rebellious smirk.
       "Are you insane?" Tarsus chortled.  "You are the better swordsman, the better fighter and the more disciplined soldier.  You are a perfect fit for the post you hold, and truly, a great man.  But you sit at the top of the mountain, and you are utterly alone.  I do not wish to be alone.  I have seen now what the price of greatness is.  I thought I could pay it...truth be told, I thought I had paid it.  But I was sent back and given the chance to let it go.  And I stand before you now, happy, that I chose rightly.”
       The two of them stared at each other, unblinking; their points of view fighting for them, yet neither one of them would back down.
       "Perhaps you are right Tarsus," Drake relented, stepping back so that the point of Tarsus's sword no longer rested against his breastplate.  "We have both made our choices.  Now, all that is left is to live with them."
       "Tarsus's eyebrows shot up as his smile grew wider.  "You know, that is the smartest thing I have heard you say in a long time Sir Captain of the KingsGuard.  You are absolutely right!"
       "He is?" Finnian asked.
       "He is," Tarsus confirmed, looking down at Finnian and gripping his smaller friend tightly by the shoulder.  "We have to go!"
       "Where?" Finnian asked, though he thought he already knew the answer.
       "To help a friend see her quest through," Tarsus confirmed.  "We're not done here yet, my friend."  He grabbed Finnian's arm and led him briskly to the door of the White Light.  Before leaving, though, he turned the pair of them around back to Drake, and with a strong wave said, "Goodbye forever I hope."
       Finnian could not resist, "Drake, I just want to say, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart...I hope we never see you again."
       Arm in arm, Tarsus and Finnian turned back to the entrance of the tavern and strode out before Drake could reply.  They had large smiles on their faces, and a fire in their eyes.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 24: To Serve

Cecily stood on the bowsprit of the Defiance, watching the open sea before her.  It was a fairly isolated place on the ship, because it was difficult to get to and only allowed for two people to stand comfortably.  For her, though, it became a refuge from the devotion and dedication of Tarsus. 
It was strange to her, but Malthir proved to be much more powerful than even Adulatio.  She knew the divinity of the gods; a power that spread from those divine beings and pulsed inside any mortal that was nearby; compelled men and women to worship as more suggestion than slavery.  People still had will and wherewithal enough to be themselves.  Not so with the sword of the GodKing.  Malthir’s power dominated the men and women on the Defiance so completely that they could not even think for themselves.  Luckily, operating a large ship was such an all-consuming task; and the crew knew their trades so innately, that they could not spare a moment to approach her with their worship.  Over the last few days, even Finnian’s natural skill with knots had proved useful on the foremast.  Tarsus though: who did not know how to help: needed her constant guidance.
Other than coming up with menial tasks to keep Tarsus busy, it had been a quiet two-week journey from the UnderIsle back to Malthanon.  The crew worked, and Cassius sulked in the captain’s quarters.  Every now and then, Cecily caught his hateful glare staring out at her from the small, circular window of the cabin.  She did not fear him though, not now.  She had Adulatio on her side, and beyond that, the ship’s crew was in her thrall.  Cassius could not harm her now, however desperately he may have wanted to.  If he so much as tried, the sailors in his employ would rise against him.
“My lady?”
Cecily bristled slightly at the voice of Tarsus behind her.  She turned to him, trying to offer a warm smile and remind herself that he could not help the way he was behaving.  She found him kneeling, with head bowed, on the ship’s deck.
“How may I serve?” he asked.
“Tarsus, stand up,” Cecily ordered flatly. 
He obeyed, though as Tarsus rose to his feet, his head remained bowed to her.  “As you wish.”
“Just…stand here,” Cecily exhaled.  There were no menial jobs left for her to give him, not when they were this close to Malthanon.  “Stand here and look out at the city with me.”
Tarsus raised his head and stared out at the docks of Malthanon with an examining gaze.  Cecily was struck with the idea that he was scouring the dilapidated shacks and stone cottages that lined the harbor for danger.  She offered a silent, small laugh at the absurdity of this.  It felt good to laugh.  It reminded her that her friend was still inside the mindless husk that stood before her now, and every now and then he had managed to show himself in surprising ways.
She turned back to the city, and the two of them stared on as the sun rose higher.  Their journey, after so many months, was almost come to an end.

On the docks, Cecily kept a firm grip on the handle of Malthir.  On the Defiance, she was surrounded by a mindless mob, all dedicated to her.  But she had no way of knowing how the sword’s influence would work in the largest city in Arden.  If it was anything like the influence of a god, folk near her would be overcome with yearning to serve her while she was close by, but as soon as she took a few steps away from them that yearning would fade.  She looked up at the Defiance to test her theory, and was relieved to see that the few crewmembers on the deck were rubbing their eyes, as though they had just woken up and were wiping the sleep out of their faces. 
There was no one near her on the docks now, save for Tarsus and Finnian who had followed her off the ship.  That was good.  She’d have to move quickly through the crowds to spare the people the spell of the sword.  She gripped it even tighter, bracing herself for the human gauntlet she was about to face.
She gave a quick look behind her to make sure Tarsus and Finnian had collected their things.  They stood at the ready, clearly waiting on her to move.  She nodded to them then turned away from the Defiance to put that infernal ship behind her once and for all. 
Just then, Cassius appeared before her, materializing so close that Cecily almost fell backward from the shock.  She felt Tarsus and Finnian steady her, and while she did not look back at them this time, she could feel how tense they were.  They were ready for battle, and in her mind’s eye she saw their hands on their swords.
“Stay your blades,” she said quickly.  “There is nothing to fear.  The demigod only wishes to talk.  Please, let us be.”
A few moments passed in a tense silence, but finally Cecily felt Tarsus and Finnian withdraw behind her.  She kept a level gaze with Cassius, and so did not know how far they went, but there was no doubt in her mind that they were close enough to help her should she have been wrong about Cassius’s true intentions.
“Hm,” the demigod smirked.  “I see your doubt,” he chided as a wicked grin spread across his face.  “Even after being given divine power, you are still only a mortal after all.  Fear not girl.  You are right…you have nothing to fear from me.”
“What do you want?” Cecily asked, trying to sound assured.
“To share one last epiphany with you, before you go,” Cassius chortled.  “You mortals have so few of them in your relatively short lives.  A hundred maybe?  Two?  I have had so many in the lifetimes I’ve lived.  They do not always prove to be as true as you imagine they would when you have them, but over many years you do come to learn how to discern the real epiphanies from the false ones.”
“And do you have a real epiphany to share with me now?” Cecily offered, playing along.
“I do,” Cassius’s grin grew even wider.  “You have stolen my birthright from me, but over these last weeks I have seen that the sword has stolen something from you too…your friends.  They are your slaves now, and will be, so long as you carry that sword.”
“How many times must I tell you…”
Cassius waved the rest of her entreaty away with a sharp flick of his wrist.  “You do not wish to keep it, yes I know.  But that is not your decision.  My father may burden you with it, regardless of what you wish.  So tell me, now that you’ve had a taste of the life of a god, do you enjoy it?  Could you endure it?  For how long?  A year?  A few?  Forever?”
Cecily realized her mouth was still open from trying to speak before.  Slowly, she closed it.  Yet as she did, she leaned her head in to the demigod. 
“You think yourself a true servant of Malthus,” the demigod went on.  “A disciple, yes?  Yet you have only just begun paying the price of divinity.  Beware, for it is higher than your feeble, dying mind could ever imagine.  I have spent my entire life in service to the divine, and I have paid its price a thousand times over.  There is nothing I will not do to possess full godhood.  So yes girl…you have nothing to fear from me.  For one day, you will learn the true cost of what you’re meddling with, and on that day I will find you.  There will be no fight left in you, no loyalty strong enough to sustain you.  For on that day, with your humanity ground to dust while your body is left behind; a shabby vessel for something it was never meant to contain; I will have won.  And you…to reclaim what you have lost, will grant me anything I desire.”
Cecily stared at him with wide eyes.  She was not sure if she looked as afraid as she felt, but she had not the wherewithal to mask her feelings even if she did.  She knew there was no lie in what Cassius told her.  The demigod’s epiphany was the truth; she knew it even as he was speaking it.  In her mind, she reflected on the last few days with Tarsus aboard the Defiance.  Her affection for him waned a little each time he pledged himself to her, or asked how he could be of service.  It became easier to accept that he would always be there without question, not for his care of her, but for her control over him. 
The longer she wore Malthir around her waist, the more her humanity slipped away.
“Such a little girl,” Cassius delighted.  “You are only beginning to understand the enormity of this quest you have undertaken.  The knowledge frightens you, as it should, because the experience…the experience will rend your soul asunder, over and again, until another offers to bear your heavy burden.  That…is what my father asks of you.  To suffer in his stead, for all time.”
Cecily’s free hand found the grip of Malthir and wrapped around it tightly.  She took a deep breath, and steadied her frantic breathing, for a flood of power cascaded through her.  It was a feeling she still marveled at, even after two weeks of having the sword at her side.  Whenever she held the blade, it made her feel alive with an energy she never knew she had.  She felt aware and present in a way she very rarely did.  It was as though she was a puzzle, and Malthir was the missing piece to make her whole.  As she held the sword, she felt in no way diminished or dependent: whether on food, drink, or fatigue.  There was nothing she needed.  For the first time in her life, she was truly her own master.
“I will serve as I have been asked to,” Cecily replied defiantly.  “And trust in the mercy of Malthus.”
“He will show you none,” Cassius whispered wickedly.
“Leave me, half-god!” Cecily commanded.  “Before I cut you down where you stand.”
There was no tug in her gut.  She had not felt one in the presence of gods since Tarsus had given her Malthir.  Yet Cassius, after flashing one last cruel smile, vanished before her eyes.  She turned around and, as she suspected, found Tarsus and Finnian watching her intently with their hands on their sword grips.  They were only a few paces away.
Cecily let go of Malthir and raised her hand to signal her friends.  She stopped herself before waving them over.  In the instant she let go of the sword, the mastery she had felt just a moment ago left her.  That was another thing that still surprised her; how quickly the tables could turn.
Tarsus and Finnian almost leapt from their spots, rushing back to her.  As they approached, Cecily was struck with an epiphany of her own.  She knew the first question that would come from their lips, and here…now, she knew what she had to tell them.
“What can we do?” Finnian asked eagerly.
“How may we serve?” Tarsus added.
“You…” Cecily paused.  She felt a sadness that seemed to her remote and far away, as though it were buried deep inside her and it was digging its way to the surface.  She wrapped her hand around the grip of Malthir again, and as she did a rush of power returned.  She felt the sadness drown in an avalanche of cold logic.  She knew this had to be done, and she knew that only she could do it.  “The two of you must go home.  Back to Briarden.  That is how you can serve me.”
“Is there nothing else you need of us?” Tarsus pressed, his voice wavering.
Finnian did not speak, but looked up at Cecily with baleful eyes.
“Nothing,” Cecily said, resolute.  “You have both done what I asked of you, and more.  I thank you for your help, but our journey together is over.  Now it is time I went on alone.  Goodbye.”
They did not move, only stood there staring at her as though rooted.  After a few moments, they each nodded that they understood.  Slowly, Finnian turned his back on Cecily and began walking away.  Tarsus held her in his gaze only a moment longer, visibly searching for something more to say.  At last, he seemed defeated by the task, and turned to follow Finnian with his head hanging low.
Cecily did not watch after them.  This separation was harder for them than it was for her, and she did not want them to look back and suffer anew at finding her there.  Instead, she turned and quickly moved in the opposite direction, her hand still tightly gripping Malthir at her side.
            Everyone she passed looked on her and began to ask how they could serve, but Cecily ignored them.  She kept her eyes firmly skyward, taking in the majesty of the grand cathedral at the base of Malthanon’s palace.  The spire in the center, that rose so high it pierced the clouds, was her final destination.  At the top of that spire, a wounded Malthus lay, waiting for Malthir to give him respite.  At the top of that spire, was the end of her quest.
As she moved quickly through the throngs, holding Malthir, she knew she could do what needed to be done.  But she also knew that once she released the sword, doubt would plague her again.  She was alone now.  Without the sword in hand, would she make the right choice?  Would she retain this power, this surety, and obey Malthus’s final command as she swore she would?
She did not know for certain, but she waved the thought away.  That was tomorrow’s decision, tomorrow’s problem.  Today, now, she was confident and assured.  She would serve, as she had sworn.