OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 32: What We Might Have Been
Tarsus stood upon a sea of rubble, the remains of the once great palace that Malthus called home. He pulled Malthir from his belt and he held the broken sword aloft. A muted grey: lifeless and inert: was all that the sword offered him now. Tarsus closed his eyes, and drew forth.
Slowly, the half-blade came to life in a dull, pale glow. Tarsus opened his eyes, focused on the faint light that gave this once mighty weapon a brief renewal. “Where is she?” he asked of the power inside, funneling it through the blade it knew so well.
Without delay, the power answered. A ray of light fell from the broken edge of the blade, falling to the ground only a few paces from where Tarsus stood. The Sunsword walked forward, but the light did not move from the spot it had settled on.
When he reached the spot that the light touched, Tarsus got to his knees and carefully set the sword on the broken earth beside him. He removed one stone after the next; a man transfixed; slowly digging his way deeper into the ruin of the castle. He did not dig long before he found her.
Cecily’s body was broken almost beyond recognition. The side of her face that greeted Tarsus as he cleared away the stones atop her had was caved in. Through a mouth barely open, Tarsus heard her take in short gasps; her breath clearly impeded by a large stone that sat atop her chest. Tarsus removed it and slowly, gently, turned her head so that she could look up into his waiting gaze.
What Tarsus took for a smile, struggled to shape her face as her eyes took him in.
“Am I dreaming?” Cecily asked.
“No Cecily,” Tarsus answered. “It’s me.”
“I thought you must have been long dead,” Cecily said as tears of relief began to fall from her eyes. “I’ve lain here, in the dark, with no sense of time…no sight of space. All I have known…is how much it hurts.”
Tarsus lowered a hand to Cecily’s cheek, letting his palm fill in the depression that the stone had shaped. “I am…so sorry.”
“I have relived my life a thousand times over,” Cecily said, unable to hide the hurt that consumed her now, “and even in my memories, I cannot escape it. The pain is everywhere. I no longer remember a time without it.”
“But I can,” Tarsus offered weakly. It was a foolish thing to say to someone so far gone in suffering. “What comfort could my memory of her, healthy and whole, offer now? Surely, all she wants is for this to be over: for me to finish it,” he thought sardonically.
“Tell me,” she returned with a whisper. Tarsus looked down at her in shock. “I don’t want to die…having forgotten who I used to be.”
Tarsus smiled sadly down at her. “Very well. You were brave, and strong. Headstrong, even. You came to my village with a goal in mind, and you did not stop until you had achieved it. No matter how many grizzled, old soldiers called you crazy. You persevered.”
“I did not have to try too hard,” Cecily said, her smile still struggling against the pain. “You and Finnian joined up right away.”
“You inspired us,” Tarsus said. He let his head fall, looking away from her misshapen form and remembering the protest Finnian had put forth at the idea of joining with Cecily. “You inspired me,” Tarsus said quietly.
“Finnian…never quiet believed in the same way you and I did,” Cecily deduced.
“No,” Tarsus agreed. “The gods always seemed too…far away for him to see. Even living amongst us, showing themselves as they do…he never truly believed in them.”
“It seems more and more folk feel that way these days,” Cecily said.
Tarsus raised his head a little, looking down at her in awe. “Is that why you set out on this quest?”
“For all the other gods out there…” Cecily coughed and her body shook with the effort of it, “…Malthus was the only one who ever proved worthy of worship. He seemed…to care about people. He built them the most beautiful city in the world. And even when the power corrupted him, he did not let it corrupt his city. He withdrew. Shut himself away. Let the city live on without him…for a thousand years.”
“How do you know all of this?” Tarsus asked, struggling to keep a level tone so as not to betray the powder keg of anger just a spark away from exploding.
“He told me,” Cecily answered simply. “In my vision. So I had to help him reclaim himself.”
“Cecily, he used you,” Tarsus quietly thundered. “He used us all. Adulatio used us! Cassius used us! That’s what the gods do. Because of Malthus, you will die!”
“Not because of Malthus…” Cecily said patiently, “…because of you.”
Tarsus was stunned. “Cecily…” he began, but quickly lost all semblance of a reply. She was right.
“You have come to kill me,” she said, just as matter-of-factly as before. “If not for this quest, we would not be in this position. If not for this quest, we never would have met at all. I might have grown old…married a decent man and had a family. I might have lived a full life…”
Tarsus’s rage melted away. “How selfish,” he thought, “that I should be angry at her. When I am as I am…and she is as she is.”
Cecily gasped audibly as she lifted her arm. Tarsus began to tell her to stop, but before he could utter the words she had placed her hand over his that rested on her hollowed cheek. “I might have lived a full life…but it would not be this life. And this is the life I wanted more. I know that, because I sought it…chased after it. I wanted to find you, to travel with you…to fight alongside you and push through challenge after challenge with you. And now it comes to it…even after all the pain…I want to die for you.”
“Cecily…no…” Tarsus pleaded.
“Yes Tarsus Cole,” Cecily said, her voice resonating and echoing all around him. “If you would take my place, of your own free will, then I choose you as my heir. It is what gods do…what they have always done. They live in their people, and in so doing succumb. And when the people no longer need them, they must die…to be reborn.”
“That…” Tarsus said through gritted teeth, “is a bitter fate.”
“No more bitter than man’s,” Cecily said, offering a gentle squeeze of her hand atop his.
Next to Tarsus, the half-sword Malthir began to glow. The Sunsword looked to it in surprise. He was not channeling any power, yet the broken blade pulsed with light, each blaze brighter than the one that came before.
“It is time for us to say goodbye,” Cecily said.
“Cecily, I don’t think I can…”
“You must,” Cecily said, interrupting his doubt and hesitation with her utter surety. “And what’s more, you must promise me something before you do.”
“Anything,” Tarsus countered.
“Be worthy,” Cecily said. “It is a great burden you take on with this power. It will corrupt you…torture you. You have no idea yet the pain it will inflict upon you. But despite all that, I implore you to remember why you came on this journey with me. You wished to be better…”
“You think too highly of me,” Tarsus interrupted her. “I wished to be great: a great warrior, a great leader…a paragon in the eyes of my compatriots. Someone worthy of their admiration…their respect…and their jealousy,” Tarsus lowered his head again, unable to look at her, even though she could see naught but her own pain. “…I wished to be great.”
“Then be great,” Cecily demanded, “but abandon the shallow pools where you thought greatness to lie. Seek it in the vast ocean of your own humanity. It will be hard work, but there is great worth in such work.”
The blade next to Tarsus flashed brighter, catching his eye. He removed his hand from Cecily’s cheek and closed it around the grip of the sword. He lifted it, and brought it over, leaving the flat of it hovering over Cecily’s chest.
“What I have been given, I bequeath unto you…” Cecily proclaimed, “…my chosen.”
“What you bestow, I humbly accept,” Tarsus heard himself say. He did not know what possessed him to say those words, but they felt right now. He slowly turned the broken blade, positioning its serrated edge over Cecily’s heart. He held it there…”Cecily…”
“Be worthy,” she repeated.
“I am so sorry it had to end this way,” the words burst from Tarsus’s lips.
“I am sorry,” Cecily said peacefully, “that it must begin this way.”
The sword stopped flashing and held aglow, white and piercing. It shook maddeningly in Tarsus’s readied hand, sensing what he was prepared to do to its master; fighting back in what feeble way it could.
“I swear to you…” Tarsus professed over the escalating thrum of the once-dead weapon he held, “I will become great. I will fight for the safety of my people, and defend them from others who would use them as pawns. I will serve them…for you. For Finnian. I will serve them…for the man I used to be.”
Tarsus called forth the power deep inside him. For a moment, he felt his own power held at bay by the glowing sword in his hand, yet not for long. What will was in the sword soon gave way to the singular purpose that Tarsus wielded. The sword, and the remnant power of Malthus within it, became his.
With a cry, Tarsus brought Malthir down hard. He felt the blade pierce metal and flesh. He felt it sink deep into the body of his friend. He felt it come out the other end of her and hold fast to the brittle earth underneath.
There was an explosion of white light, yet Tarsus was not thrown back. Instead, he was lifted up…higher and higher. The light consumed him.
Tarsus Cole: militiaman of the village of Briarden and descendent of the barbarian Sunswords: both friend and enemy of Drake Mathix: loyal follower of Cecily Thorne and sworn brother of Finnian Pell: was gone forever.