Saturday, April 29, 2017

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 34: Renewal

             “Finnian Pell…” Drake said hollowly, a numbness spreading in the pit of his stomach. 
            “Drake Mathix…” Finnian mimicked with exaggerated condescension. 
            “I never expected to see you again,” Drake said with disarming candor.
            Finnian looked back at the former captain of the KingsGuard, momentarily stunned by such quiet sincerity.  Then, as though realizing to whom he was speaking, Finnian’s surprise became impish as he replied to Drake’s stoic concern with a raspberry and a wide smile.  The younger Pell drained what was left in his cup, slammed it onto the bar, and clapped for more.
            “Clearly you have had enough to drink,” Drake said, indicating that he, himself, had not.  To remedy this, Drake raised his own tankard to his lips and drank deep.
            “Drake Mathix drinking,” Finnian said in jovial awe.  “I never thought I’d see that again in this lifetime.”  Madeline quickly refilled his cup and Finnian raised it in salute of Drake.  Suddenly, his face turned serious, and he looked down at the smiling patrons who were all grinning up at him.  He put a hand onto one’s shoulder.  “Maybe it really is the end of the world.”
            The shining faces; only a moment ago drinking in his glee as though it was a rare tonic being passed around their circle; suddenly turned solemn.  One by one, their raised heads fell, and their smiles faded.
            “This can only mean one thing…” Finnian proceeded gravely.  He raised his cup to Drake, and then joined his fellows in letting his eyes and head fall, resting his chin on his chest.  Then, resoundingly, he proclaimed, “TIME FOR ANOTHER DRINK!”
            Finnian’s head bolted up like a shot, his laughs echoing throughout the mostly empty tavern.  It did not take long, though, for buoyant voices to rise.  It was only a few spirits that had been lifted to laughter; and only those in Finnian’s immediate vicinity; but it was enough.  Mirth, even coming from as few as it did, filled the drinking room and took root in all that were there.  The smiles spread, and as Drake saw Madeline laugh quietly to herself, he relented.
            “Drake!  You’re smiling!” Finnian cried in amazement.
            “You’re funny Finnian,” Drake said simply.  “You could always make me laugh.”
            “Hm, you hid that well,” Finnian said joyfully, a proud smile on his face.  “You were always so serious all the time.  About everything.”
            “And you were never serious enough.  About anything,” Drake said.
            “Two roads diverged,” Finnian offered with a raise of his tankard, “and in the end, they both led to the same place.  Here.  Drinking ale…and trying to decide how to go on.”
            “That…” Drake said, interrupting himself with a swig from his cup, “is actually very insightful.  All those years ago, I left here with only one goal…never to come back.  And yet here I am.  Why?”
            The room drank silently, contemplating the uncomfortable truth that each of them, at one point or another, had suspected but that none of them chose to acknowledge before now: that one of their own, the very best of them who had trained hard and had gone on to become the captain of the GodKing’s army, had always been secretly ashamed of them.  It struck them; some more vividly than others; that Drake had never really seen Briarden the way they all had.  Not really.  The town, after all, was a transient shepherd’s village for most: a stop on the road to somewhere else.  But it was more to them. 
            “You stubborn ox,” Finnian finally said, calling Drake’s attention from solitary self-reverie, back to the communal awareness of the Good Shepherd drinking room.  “This is your home.  Where else would you go?”
            Drake felt a pressure on his gauntleted hand, and with the speed of a serpent, he looked down to see what had grabbed him.  He found small, sun-kissed fingers, wrapped tightly around his own.  He looked up to find Madeline’s kind eyes fixed on his.  She said nothing, but her lips flitted into a small smile and back: reassuring him of his place.  This was his home.
            Drake slowly pulled his hand out of the gauntlet that Madeline grasped.  With his bare fingers, he loosened hers that clung to the cold metal of the gauntlet, taking her hand in his.  He raised her knuckles to his chin, and with bowed head, kissed them as Madeline blushed.
            “End of the world indeed,” Finnian said through a broad smile.
            Drake lifted his head from Madeline’s hand and released her.  He looked to Finnian with a smile, and a look of relief.  “You are right.  Malthanon is destroyed; Malthus is…gone.  But even diminished, Briarden is still here.  Perhaps for me, it always will be.”
            “Course it will,” Finnian affirmed.  “That’s what home is, ya know.  S’the place you can always come back to.  Even when you think you’ve out grown it; even if you have; it never outgrows you.”
            “That’s why you came back here,” Drake understood.
            “Came back?” Finnian asked, comically befuddled as he sipped at his ale.
            “Drake, don’t…” Madeline began.
            “From your journey with Tarsus and that woman,” Drake said before he could register Madeline’s warning.  “Cecily, I believe.  Did Tarsus return with you?”
            “You know this Tarsus?” Finnian asked, excitement tingeing his pitch.  “Who is he?  These fellows have asked me about him as well.  And Madeline.  As if I knew the man.”
            “You don’t know Tarsus Cole?” Drake asked in a level tone.
            “The name’s familiar,” Finnian replied as Madeline quickly approached and set down a newly filled tankard.  “But it’s not calling to mind anyone I can remember.”
            “No need to think too hard about it, not that ya could,” Madeline said urgently, “just take this back to your table.”
            “This is, at least, the fourth time you’ve given me a fresh ale when this Tarsus’s name comes up,” Finnian inferred.  “What is it about him that you don’t want me to know?  Was he your lover?”
            “What?  No!” Madeline said, casting a glance back at Drake and resuming her blush from before.
            “Ah, a suitor who courted you, perhaps, but you weren’t in love with him,” Drake went on, his voice dropping to a theatrical whisper as he transitioned from a line of inquiry to one of mocking speculation.  “Yes of course, I see it on your face, plain as day.  Maybe you loved another man, but were sworn to this Tarsus.  He loved you madly, of course.  Came in here everyday, spending thousands of gold coins over the years on ale, all in an effort to woo you.  But you could not be wooed, eh Madeline?  Your heart belonged to another.  Perhaps a seemingly boorish, but brave young man.  Thinner than most, yes, but not than all.  A man who enjoyed the solitude of a table in the back of a place; a table where he could get all his good thinking in.”
            “Stop teasin,” Madeline ordered, though her stern glare was ready to be cracked by a smile at any moment.
            “Stop denying your true feelings,” Finnian said, leaning in close to her.  “You’re in love with me.”
            All eyes were on them, and Madeline felt every pair.  The blood rose to her face, and even her darker complexion could not hide the bright red that now painted her cheeks.
            “Shall we kiss now?” Finnian said playfully, offering her a crooked smile and puckering his lips in preparation.
            “HA,” the damn burst and Madeline laughed loudly, and for a long time.  Finally, when she had managed to regain control of herself, she stood upright to put some distance between her and Finnian Pell.  “Wasn’t so long ago you called me plump.  Now you wanna kiss me?”
            “I do,” a red-faced, yet smiling Finnian replied with full verve.  “You’ve lost a great deal of weight since then.  And gained quite a bit of confidence as well.  All very attractive qualities.”
            “Funny coincidence that I’m also one of the only three unwed women left in this village,” Madeline continued for him.
            “Of course, that adds to your appeal,” Finnian played along.  “You’re like a moderately priced dagger found in a blacksmith’s bargain cart.”
“Go sit down, you scrawny fool,” Madeline laughed.  “Unless free ale isn’t somethin you want.”
“My lady,” Finnian said, mustering tremendous bravado and saluting her with his tankard in the air.  “I take my leave.”  He took a swig from his mug, turned where he stood, and made for the back table as best he could. 
Madeline, watching the young Pell until he’d reached the table and sat down, turned back to Drake at the end of the bar.  She approached the knight reservedly.
“What’s happened to him?” Drake asked quietly when she was close enough to hear.
“I don’ know,” she answered, her fear shown clearly in her eyes.  “It must be a fortnight ago now, when he came back.  It was before Malthus’s castle fell…before the city was lost.  The Good Shepherd was closed, and I was here cleanin.  Suddenly, there was a light…yellow and blue…there,” she nodded her head behind her, in the direction of the back table at which Finnian now sat.  “I heard a crash, and then the light disappeared.  I found Finnian there, on top of the table, his clothes smoking as though fire had just been stamped out of them.  Only, he was fine.  Asleep even.”
“How?” Drake pressed.
“He couldn’t tell me,” Madeline answered.  “I asked him when he fin’ly woke.  He made some jape about coming in every night and how he was bound to have fallen asleep here sooner or later.  I tried tellin him that he hadn’t been here any night…not for a year at least.  But he swore to me he had.”
“He has no memory of the journey he went on with Tarsus?” Drake concluded.
“No,” Madeline confirmed, “and no memory of Tarsus neither.  Every night since then, he’s come in, and his first few back we’d talk about it.  About everythin.  He remembers Briarden, remembers growin up here and all of us as children.  But not Tarsus.  It’s like someone’s gone into his head, and cut Tarsus out of it.”
“But…they were best friends,” Drake said incredulously.  “Their lives have been so closely connected.  Are you sure he remembers nothing?”
“There was one night he seemed to get close,” Madeline admitted, “though I don’t know if it was a memory or just…a thought that maybe somethin was missing.”
“Madeline, tell me,” Drake ordered.
“We came to the night he decided to leave Briarden, and he remembered that,” the barmaid began, “at least, he remembered makin an important decision; one that would change his life.  He remembered committing to it, even though he didn’t want to.  ‘I wasn’t doing it for me,’ he said, ‘I was doing it for someone else.’  But he couldn’t remember what he did or who it was for.  It gnawed at him.  I told him that what he did that day was leave, and as to who it was for, I guess Tarsus.  ‘But I’d never leave Briarden,’ he said to me.  He stopped talkin to me after that, but I could see his mind was spinnin.  He kept pushin, tryin to figure it out.  Then, suddenly, he looked up at me with wide eyes.  I thought he’d finally got it, but when he opened his mouth he just screamed.  A swirl of blue and yellow light surrounded him, and he twisted inside it…like it was burnin him.”
Drake retook her hand and squeezed hard.  She did not squeeze back.  She was lost in memory.
“Finally, the light faded, and he fell to the floor.  I waved away the smoke; worried I’d find him horribly burned.  But he was fine.  Just sleepin again…like when I found him the first time,” she turned to Drake with resolute eyes, “I won’t make him suffer, just to remember a life he can’t have anymore.”
“I am sorry,” Drake said, amazed in this moment by the strength of this woman he thought he knew.  “Madeline…you are not the same person you were when I left here.  Not even the same person you were a year ago.  You’ve changed…grown.”
“Only one way to go when the world turns upside down,” Madeline said, grasping his hand in return.  “Forward.”
CRASH!
Drake, Madeline and all the rest of the halfway sober patrons of the Good Shepherd turned to the entryway of the place.  In the open door stood a boy; he was sweating, heaving and struggling to catch his breath.  Drake slowly stood.
After a few moments, the boy pushed himself up to his full height.  He scanned the room, and when his eyes landed on the armored Drake, the young man approached the knight. 
“My lord captain, I’ve been searching for you everywhere.  Thank the gods I found you,” the boy said, getting to one knee before the former captain of the KingsGuard.
  “Rise lad,” Drake gently prodded, bending low to help the boy up.  “The GodKing is gone.  There is no more KingsGuard, and thus, I am no longer a captain.”
“That may be so sir,” the boy said, “but I’ve run a long way to find you.  It’s about Malthanon…”
“Son…” Drake cut in, looking down at the boy consolingly, “…I know all about Malthanon.  The city has fallen.”
“All due respect sir,” the boy shot back with an incredulous grin spreading, “but it hasn’t.”
Drake got to one knee and gripped tightly the boy’s shoulder.  “Did you come from there?  If you have, then you’ve seen what’s left of it.  It’s a ruin.”
“It was sir,” the boy agreed.  “But not anymore.  It’s back.”
Drake turned to Madeline, and then scanned the faces of all the other drinkers who now regarded this boy with something between suspicion and fear. 
“I swear,” the boy said, recalling Drake’s attention.  “But you don’t have to take my word.  If we head down to the end of the road and hike up to the top of the hill…you can see it for yourself.”
The boy was not wrong.  Drake remembered racing up to the top of that hill as a boy.  It gave them all a clear view of the majesty that was Malthanon.  It was at the top of that hill that their dream as boys: to live in Malthanon and become knights of the KingsGuard: was born.
“Very well,” Drake said.

The hike up the hill was not terribly difficult, but it took Drake some time to remember the most direct path.  Behind him, the boy followed closely, with Madeline last in line. 
They moved through the trees and came to the stone that signaled the clearing just ahead.  Drake paused, mentally preparing himself for whatever it was he would find beyond this final threshold.  Surely, he would see the city as he had left it: in ruin.  But what if he didn’t?  What would that mean for him?  Would he have to go back? 
Something had happened to him in the Good Shepherd.  He felt different now; as though the life he’d worked so hard for, for so long, was behind him.  He felt ready to move on to something else…something new, or maybe, something old.  His duty to Malthus – to Malthanon – to himself, was finally done.  But if what this boy claimed was true, and Malthanon stood anew, what would that mean for him?
“My lord?” the voice of the boy called to him from behind.  Drake did not turn around.
“Come,” the knight said.  “Let us see what we shall see.”
He passed through the threshold of vines and branches and came out to the clearing with the world before him.  He vaguely heard the moves of the brush and the footsteps of his companions who followed behind, yet he had no mind to pay them now.  His breath was taken away at the vast miracle of what he saw.
Malthanon.  There it stood before them all, shining and pristine.  From this height, Drake saw everything.  And in the center of it all, stood the cathedral of the GodKing, with the spire of Malthus: the GodKing’s castle: jutting into the sky above. 
It was just as the boy claimed.  Malthanon…was renewed.

Friday, April 14, 2017

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 33: Returns

          The dark of the midnight hours placed its all-consuming hand outside of the Good Shepherd Tavern.  Nothing of the outside world could be seen from the small windows at the front of the place, though there was no one looking through them to begin with. 
The room was dim, in both appearance and spirit; no fire lit the hearth, and the little lamplight that shone on the wooden shepherd’s face reflected a somber melancholy.  The few shepherds drinking, who filled only a quarter of the once bustling bar, were mirror images of their wooden namesake.  Like him, they existed in utter stillness.
            That gloom was everywhere, infecting the living company who drank with downcast eyes.  They all sat ruminating over the same questions; reeling to and from the same terrors: for Malthanon, the greatest city in all of Arden, had fallen.  What could that mean for its border villages, such as Briarden?  And what happened to Malthus, GodKing of the realm?  Had he been overthrown?  Had he been slain?  And if so, who or what could possibly slay a god…their god?
            Most of the folk in Briarden had fled immediately after the castle fell: folk who’d spent twenty years or more raising their families there and making it their home, had suddenly disappeared in the middle of the night.  They left no trace of themselves behind, and a transient shepherding village would not remember them.  All that was left of Briarden’s villagers were now in this room, and had been, since Malthanon fell a fortnight ago.  They came and went at will.  Some had not left the tavern since that fateful night, and Madeline the barmaid offered them blankets and an open floor on which to sleep.  Nevertheless, every evening they all gathered together to drink the night through.  Yet they did not speak to each other.  There was nothing to say, really.  They just sat, and drank, and thought…alone in a sea of like minds.  This was their home: where they belonged.  There would be no leaving for them.
            They all heard the door open and close, yet not one of them turned to see who had come in at such a late hour.  The large man, armored in stained silver and adorned by a sullied white cloak, made his way to the bar and took a stool.  Among such a common crowd of shepherds and laborers, he was a marvel.  Holding up his cloak, on both shoulders, he bore the medallions of the KingsGuard: a sunbeam, without beginning or end, narrow at the top, but widening toward the bottom. 
            “Welcome milord,” Madeline, the barmaid, offered meekly.  She approached this new patron with the same bowed head that all the other patrons bore.  She placed a mug of dark brown beer at the gauntleted hands of the man.  “Ale’s all we’ve got, I’m afraid.  We make it here, ya see.  Won’t have nothin else for…till things settle down some.  No charge yer worship.”
            “Thank you Madeline,” the deep voice echoed throughout the quiet room.
            Madeline raised her head and smiled at the sight of the man.  He wore no helm, and though his face was leaner and more haggard than she remembered it, there was no mistaking Drake Mathix.  She looked around to all the others and noticed they too had recognized the voice, and were now looking up at the greatest man to have ever lived in Briarden.
            “My lord…you’re alive,” she said to him at last.
            Whispers of “Drake” and “the young Mathix” cascaded through the room, and the feeling of despondent hopelessness that had plagued the Good Shepherd before was momentarily lifted.  The captain of the KingsGuard had survived, and he had returned.
            Drake did not turn to address them, but kept his eyes fixed on the ale that Madeline had offered him.
            “I’m sorry,” she said, blushing as she reached for the tankard.  “Ya don’t drink…”
            Drake placed his hand overtop of the cup, stopping her from taking it back.  Madeline looked up at him in surprise, and slowly pulled her arm back. 
The knight raised the tankard, and held it still before his lips.  It seemed to Madeline that he was studying the ale: weighing it.  Then, with a few long draughts, he emptied the cup.  He gently reset it on the bar, raised his head to the barmaid, and smiled.  “Still good.  Even after all these years.” 
            Madeline felt shaken.  There was something unsettling to her about seeing Drake smile - about seeing him drink.  The last time she saw him like this was when they were all children.  But Drake pulled away from them early.  Once he decided he wanted to be a knight of the KingsGuard, he gave up the fun and folly of their youth and embraced the rigorous training and dedication of a soldier.  But this was not Drake the soldier that sat before her now.  “Drake, tell us what’s happened.  Please.”
            “As you wish,” Drake replied with a slight bow of his head.
            CLINK, CLINK, CLINK
            Madeline looked down to see Drake’s armored finger tapping on the rim of his empty tankard. 
“But first…” the knight intoned.
She quickly took up his cup and refilled it, setting the fresh ale down before him.  Then, without thinking, she placed her warm hand over one of his cold gloves.  “Milord?”
“My lady…” Drake began, eyeing her hand on his with a curious expression that she could not decipher.  With his other hand, he took up the tankard and brought it to his lips.  “If you’ll excuse me.”
Madeline removed her hand from his and stepped back, watching him drain the second tankard just as quickly as he had the first.  With less gentility than before, he set the cup down and pushed it toward the barmaid.
“One more I think!” Drake enthused.  The listless sorrow he exuded when he came in was giving way to an intoxicated vivacity.
The barmaid obliged, only she did not set his newly filled third cup before him.  Instead, she held it just out of his reach and offered him a piercing glare, “Sir Drake, please…what’s goin on out there?”
“Chaos, Madeline,” Drake said with an uncharacteristic smirk.  “What else would you expect when the world has come to an end?”  He tapped a finger on the bar before him, signaling her to set the ale down.  “…or when our god has died?”
“Died?” Madeline led the charge on a flurry of repeaters throughout the room.  “Malthus is dead?”
“Or he’s fled,” Drake answered easily.  “Either way, his city was a symbol of his power…and his city is crumbling.  Ergo, he is gone.  Whether dead or fled makes no difference.”
Madeline brought the tankard of ale, shaking in her trembling hand, to the spot that Drake had designated and let it fall.  It landed upright on the bar, some of its contents spilling out over the rim and splashing onto the already stained gauntlets of Drake Mathix.  No one paid it any mind.  They were all focused inward again; inside their mental reflections of a world on the very edge of order, about to fall into chaos.  Drake had just confirmed what they all had most feared, and now…now they sat and watched, with their minds’ eyes, as his words took on an ominous shadow of a hundred different hells yet to come.
“The world’s not ended yet,” a boisterous voice called out.  “Pardon me lads, just tryinn’a get to the bar.”
Drake turned to the direction from which the voice had come.  At the end of the bar, a crowd of men and women were suddenly smiling as a figure moved through them.  From the corner of his eye, Drake spotted the table in the back of the Good Shepherd where he, Tarsus, and Finnian used to sit as younger men: where they sat together again only a year ago.  It was empty now.  He briefly wondered what happened to those men he called friends once upon a time.  He gave a thought to where they were now.  Were they even alive? 
At the end of the bar, those smiling men and women shuffled to make room for the man to get through.  Drake heard him trip on something, and as one the group huddled in to help him.
“You alright lad?” an older, white haired man asked.
“I can get it for ya lovey,” a woman offered.
“No need to make a fuss,” the voice told them exuberantly.  “I am a grown man, after all.”
They parted some more, and he finally clawed his way to the bar.  Drake saw that he had shaggy hair, and a beard that was coarse but thin.  He looked filthy, too, clearly not having cleaned himself in days.  The man turned to look back at Drake, and when the knight saw those eyes he recognized them well enough.
“Finnian Pell,” Drake sternly affirmed.