OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 37: Choosing to See
Drake awoke with the light of the dawn; an old habit of a former life lived for far too many years. As a soldier, he had many predispositions disciplined into him. Now though, this very morning, he wished to be rid of all of them.
Last night he tried very hard to ensure a much longer lie-in for himself by engaging Finnian Pell in a drinking game. He, the tall and muscle-bound former soldier, matched the younger, thinner, and more jovial Pell drink for drink.
They were celebrating. Two weeks had passed since a strange boy showed them to a familiar hilltop where they could look out onto the city of Malthanon. They expected to find it in ruin, but were surprised to see that it had been restored…complete with the rebuilt palace of the GodKing, and its spire; a steeple that stood so tall, no mortal’s gaze could find the top.
But the restitution of his GodKing was not the reason for Drake’s celebration. After showing them the rejuvenated city, the boy begged Drake to return: to retake his place as rightful captain of the KingsGuard. Drake debated with himself everyday for a fortnight on what he should do.
Finally, he commanded the boy to go back to Malthanon, alone. He would stay in Briarden, his home, and help his people to rebuild it. There was no god here to do it for them, and so they would have to do it themselves; as always, Drake realized…all the shepherd’s village ever had was the people that made it up.
Thus Drake Mathix drank in celebration of his newfound freedom: in commemoration of what Briarden had done for him in the past, and in pledge to what he would do for it in future. It was a healthy, or perhaps unhealthy, first step toward making up for lost time.
And one he regretted tight now, in the light of the morning. His head hurt and his stomach ached. He shut his eyes tight, but the dim light of dawn managed to find small cracks through his ocular armor. Beams of light, as thin as strands of yarn, exploded into view like flashes of lightning in a clear night sky. Why would anyone do this to himself?
He sat up with bowed head, trying to rub the light from his eyes. As he slowly managed them open, he saw that his chest was bare. He had not put on a nightshirt when he went to bed, and the hairs on his bulging pectorals were standing straight up. Realizing how cold he felt, Drake reached over on the bed, searching with his hand for something to put on. His outstretched fingers fell to cover a perfect mound that felt like wool to his touch, though he’d never known a ball of wool to give so easily. He lifted his hand a bit, withholding the minimal force he’d placed on the woolen shape…and the perfect mound returned to form.
Drake turned to see where his hand lay. His eyes went wide with shock, and what little sleep was left in him had fled.
Sleeping next to him, face-up, was Madeline. She was covered to her neck in a heavy woolen blanket; a blanket, Drake suddenly thought, that looked more than large enough to cover the both of them. Yet she managed, somehow, to wrestle it from a battle-tested soldier. She wore a small smile as she slept, as if to mock her failed opponent, and her cheeks shone red with the warm reward her victory had afforded her.
Drake suddenly realized he had not removed his hand from Madeline’s…
The small gust of wind from the speed of Drake’s pull lightly grazed Madeline’s hair, pushing her forelocks to a gentle sway. The sleeping maiden responded to this by nestling the wool blanket up a little higher to just underneath her chin.
Drake jumped quietly from the bed and searched desperately to find his tunic and breeches. Surely they were somewhere, under all the ruffles, and lace, and stockings, and hosiery.
There! Beyond the foot of the bed, he found his clothes and quickly put them on. By the door, he found his boots. He almost leapt into them, and as he bent low to strap them he found his cloak and his sword belt lying flat under the bed.
“Hm…mmm,” the low, still half-asleep groan came from above.
Drake looked up, then back down to his belongings. Could he retrieve them without waking her? They were his, after all.
But Madeline would not be asleep for much longer, and the idea of being there when she awoke was out of the question. Whatever this was between them, it was too complicated to be decided now. Drake had chosen to leave everything behind, and he wanted to enjoy being unencumbered for a while.
“Wahhh,” the audible yawn came.
Drake rose silently and opened the door behind him with the deftness of a thief. He gave the sleeping form of Madeline an awkward nod, then turned and walked out.
The door was shut behind him, and Drake was faced with a pair of red velvet curtains. He steeled himself, and pushed through.
He was behind the bar of the Good Shepherd. As expected, none of the patrons who had slept here the previous night were awake…yet. He gave a small sigh of relief, and with a dexterity that usually escaped men of his size, Drake was over the bar and through the front door of the place nary making a sound.
Twenty paces down the lane from the Good Shepherd tavern, Drake took his first deep breath of the day. He knew that in two hours time, there would be questions. But he would not be there to answer them. Not today at least. For now, he would make for the village square. What was to happen later…could be left for later.
Drake slowly raised his hand in greeting. The man who’d called out was a grocer, by the looks of him. Drake had never seen him before, but Drake had lived in Malthanon for ten years. There were quite a few new faces he’d noticed since coming back, and this wrinkly old man’s may have been one of them.
The grocer stood hunched over, with long silver hair and bright blue eyes. He offered a wide, open-mouth smile, and waved Drake over to his little cart.
The cart itself was a rickety thing: a hodgepodge of wooden pieces, ill-fitted to replace bits that must have broken off. It stood wide enough for the old man to be covered when he stood behind it, and in the front were two small shelves that had been laid with the most beautiful fruits and vegetables that Drake had ever seen.
“Hello there,” Drake said as he approached, taking his eyes off the goods and focusing on the man. “I do not believe we have met before. I am Drake Mathix.”
“Old Horace sir,” the grocer replied, offering a tip of his head and a finger-salute. “And I’ve heard tell o’you. The great captain o’Malthus’s knights. Folk won’t stop talkin bout it. Specially mistress Madeline, if ya don’t mind my sayin.”
“Why should I mind?” Drake asked, suddenly caught off guard.
“Well, cause you and she…” Old Horace stumbled for the words, “beggin yer pardon, sir, but, ya just came from the Good Shepherd.”
“How do you know that?” Drake demanded.
“Everyone knows. We were all there last night,” Horace admitted. “Sides, there’s very few places to hide in a village this small. S’pose ya must’ve forgotten that, livin in Malthanon fer so long.”
Drake looked up, above the grocer’s cart, to the tall spire in the distance. It gleamed in the morning sunlight, and he remembered that only two weeks and a day ago that spire had crumbled because of Adulatio’s raid. Yet now it stood. Malthus, it seemed, had returned.
“She’s a good girl,” Horace said, breaking the spell of memory that had seduced Drake.
“Madeline, you mean?” Drake asked, being recalled.
Horace gave him a long, sly look in reply. “Not many could keep a tavern open and runnin by themselves. But she did. An I thank her fer that.”
“Why thank her for keeping a business going?” Drake asked.
“Wasn’t about the drinkin, son,” Horace replied, raising his bright eyes to Drake’s. “S’about findin home again, in a place ya least expect.”
Drake lowered himself to be level with the grocer, as if being pulled by a force outside his own volition. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought that, for a moment, he caught sight of a familiar pair of brown eyes in the old man’s gaze. He blinked, and grocer’s eyes returned to their brilliant blue. Drake shook his head. Clearly, some remnant of sleep held fast in him.
“Good Shepherd gave us all a place to go at night,” Horace continued. “Gave us a place where we could talk sense, when everywhere else, sense seemed in short supply. Gave us a place to laugh, when just outside the door, weren’t nothin to be but scared.”
“I didn’t realize a tavern could inspire so much hope,” Drake offered.
“Not the tavern. Her,” the grocer said, laboring over his words with a slow emphasis. “She ran the place. She set the mood. And we all followed after.”
“Hm,” Drake betrayed a small smile, his first this morning. “We barely spoke as children…Madeline and I. Still, I knew her. But I never expected this much of her.”
“Funny how people can surprise us,” Horace said, his smile disappearing, “when we fin’ly choose ta see’em.”
A cloud suddenly seemed to pass over the old man’s countenance. In an instant, the Horace Drake had been speaking to, jovial and light, suddenly felt different…heavier.
A chill ran down Drake’s spine as he bent low. “What do you mean?” Drake whispered.
“Just as I said,” Horace said intently.
Drake backed away, regaining himself. He could have sworn that, when he was fixed on Horace, those blue eyes changed. Not just the color, but the shape of them as well. He knew those eyes. “Who are you? Truly?”
“Just Old Horace,” the grocer said as an all-too familiar easy smile spread across his face.
The sound of hammer on anvil alerted Drake’s practiced poise. Instinctively, he turned to look across the empty courtyard to a dilapidated shack. Within it was housed Briarden’s only forge.
It was a small thing, only good for fixing broken shepherd’s tools. As such, it was rarely used to begin with. But after Malthanon’s fall, and the exodus from Briarden, it stood abandoned. Until today, it seemed.
The unmistakable sound of the bellows was followed by smoke rising from the chimney.
“Didn’t know there was still a blacksmith in Briarden,” Horace said.
“There isn’t.” Drake turned back to the old man, who did not seem so old any longer. He still stood with a hunch, and his hair was still silver, but his face belied an understanding of more than he let on.
Drake turned back to the forge. Questions raced through his mind. Who could be using it? Why now? And how was Horace involved in all of this?
The bellows belched forth more of their black smoke, now mixed with sparks of red flame…and something else. Drake squinted, and within the smoke he caught site of a thin ray of golden light.
“Horace, tell me what this is,” Drake demanded, not turning back to face the grocer. He kept his eyes on the light, following it from the chimney as it slowly rose higher, and the higher the light shone, the wider the beam became.
“This is the time o’judgement,” Drake heard Horace say. “When you finally meet your God, and he decides whether or not yer worthy.”
Drake watched thunderstruck as the narrow beam leapt from the chimney to slowly overtake the sky itself. It grew so high that it escaped his sight. It expanded so wide that it masked the horizon. Its only limitation seemed to be the chimney top, where it began; where it came from. Something, or someone, inside that forge had shaped this inverted pyramid of light. That is when it occurred to Drake what it was that this shape reminded him of.
“A sunstroke…in reverse,” Drake realized, unconsciously bringing his right hand to his left shoulder. He felt around on his tunic, but his sigil of the KingsGuard had been put away along with the rest of his uniform. The only things he kept for use were his cloak and his sword. Both of those were not with him now, though.
The roof of the blacksmith’s forge was blown free of the small shack that surrounded it. Thousands of pieces of stone and mortar flew in a thousand different directions, yet when the dust settled, the light remained. Impossibly, it seemed to be growing ever wider, ever higher.
“Malthus,” Drake said, resignedly. He turned back to Horace, but both cart and grocer were gone. Drake exhaled, and turned back to roofless forge that held up a mountain of gold light.
The front door of the forge was blown clean off its hinges. It flew straight at Drake with a speed and force that would have carried him along, had he waited to be struck by it.
But it took more than two weeks to dull the skills of Drake Mathix. He sidestepped the oncoming debris easily, letting it fly past him. It was not meant for him, not really. His fate, it seemed, would be decided inside the forge.
His mind was made up. Armed with naught but grim determination, Drake walked forward. His stride was brisk, for his course was set.
The open doorway of the forge shone with a golden light so brilliant that Drake could not make out anything beyond it. He did not slow. He had no reason to. He stepped in, refusing to shield his eyes from the blistering bright.
After all this time, and all his years of dedication…he would see the god he had once so blindly served.