Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 1

The sun was setting over the hills as the boy with no name gathered water. Well, he had a name; his name was Artemis. But he had no family name. And with it, he had no family. He had no history. He had nothing of his own, no past, and no future. All he had was a difficult, weary present.

Artemis was born into servitude. His parents died for reasons unknown when he was very young, and were buried somewhere he had never been told. Now nearing adulthood, Artemis spent much of his free time- of which there was little- wondering what his parents were like, what their hopes and dreams had been. He had no way of knowing, of course- the Keverses never spoke of his parents.

Richard and Hortha Keverse were the landowners to whom Artemis was indentured. They were about as unpleasant as a master and mistress could be- cruel, fat, uncaring, and bitter towards everyone and everything that didn’t directly benefit them. They were rich enough to need to keep up the appearances of a clean and tidy home in case the duke or nearby lords and ladies decided to stop by, but still poor enough that they couldn’t provide more favorable living conditions for Artemis, their only servant. Or so they said.

For all his life, Artemis had lived with the Keverses. His earliest memories were of being taught how to gather grain. By the time he could walk he was being forced to carry water from the well. He was made to cook, clean, mend garments, fix broken furniture, feed livestock, milk cattle, herd sheep, chop wood- there was nothing he was good at, yet nothing he wasn’t forced to do whenever it needed to be done. Failing to complete a chore brought on punishment. Complaining about chores brought on punishment. Doing a poor job brought punishment. The circumstances didn’t matter- the poor boy was beaten many times whether he could help it or not.

The Keverses had a son- Orin. He was as cruel and bitter as his parents, and took much delight in causing Artemis to be unable to complete his chores (either by assigning him additional, pointless tasks like fixing a broken chair that he had purposely broken himself, calling him "no-name", or by simply beating or berating him to the point of tears) on a daily basis. Being several years Artemis’ senior, there was little Artemis could do to keep Orin from making his life a living hell- but one day, several years back, the Eodon Army began recruiting members to help guard the nation’s southern border. Orin, already a brutish adolescent, no doubt seeing an opportunity to cause pain and humiliation to others on the field of battle, decided to leave home at the first opportunity. To Artemis, this seemed like a godsend- fewer people to clean up after, less punishment and humiliation at the hands of the cruel boy who was now fighting for his country. Richard and Hortha were nothing but proud.

Until one day a soldier arrived at the homestead. Artemis watched him from behind the corner of the house, enthralled by the man’s presence. He rode up to the Keverse home atop a mighty white steed, towering taller than any single person Artemis had ever seen. The man wore a gleaming suit of plate mail armor, and over it a velvet tabard bearing a large profile of a horse’s head, black against its green background. He dismounted his horse with perfect grace despite his bulky armor, and strode to the front door with a sense of duty Artemis had never seen. He knocked three times, loudly proclaiming himself to be a knight of King Lainen Tarithal IV, ruler of the land of Eodon. He was met moments later by Mr. and Mrs. Keverse, and Artemis couldn’t hear what was said except for Orin’s name, and the next thing he heard was Mrs. Keverse wailing at the top of her lungs. Not wanting to bear the brunt of whatever caused that reaction, Artemis fled- he fled into the crawlspace he used in emergencies, behind some loose floorboards between his tiny excuse for a bedroom and the living room, where he knew nobody would find him. He dared not hide there often, lest someone discover his secret spot and take away the one place he can feel safe, secure. He didn’t see the knight leave, but Artemis never saw him or Orin ever again.

Any time Artemis asked about the knight, or Orin, the Keverses would just tell him to stop asking stupid questions and while you’re at it, go fetch some water. It was the same when he would ask about his parents- he knew they were servants, like him, and had been for at least a few years- but that was all. Maybe Artemis inherited his dark black hair from his father, or maybe it was his mother. Perhaps his mother had milky white skin, and his father was slightly darker, tanned from years of meaningful labor. Maybe they met when they were young, and they loved each other very much, and maybe they chose to be servants because they had traveled and seen all there was to see in the world and they didn’t want their beloved son to be spoiled by all of the dangerous pleasures of the world. Artemis wondered these things often- but on darker days, days like this one, he began to doubt. His parents were probably born into servitude, like he was. They probably only loved themselves as much as two slaves- or prisoners- can, to take their mind off of the truth of their existence. They probably didn’t have families either.

He sometimes dreamed that he was part of some grand scheme. That maybe, just maybe, he would learn one day that his parents were actually king and queen of some faraway land, that he was actually a prince, and some day a knight would arrive in shining armor atop a gleaming horse- like the one that visited on that fateful day- and tell him that he was to be crowned and given a thousand servants and a kingdom and a beautiful wife and the Keverses would be put into jail (or, better yet, turned into slaves themselves who were to work for someone even more cruel and horrid than themselves). And of course Artemis would treat all of his servants like family, and they would be free to leave at any time but they would stay because they enjoy working for him and wouldn’t dream of leaving his servitude for all the gold in the world.

As he walked the long path back to the Keverse homestead carrying buckets of water from the river, he set down the buckets- perhaps a bit too forcefully- and fell to his knees, weeping into the dirt. There was no way that his life was destined to be like this forever. There was no way the gods would be so cruel- he had worked so hard, with everything against him. He was a scrawny weakling since his first memory, but he was forced to work hard labor every day. The Keverses cared little for anything as meaningless to them as a servant’s education, so Artemis had to sneak Orin’s old schoolbooks into his bedroom whenever he could steal a spare moment or two to try and learn more about this world he lived in. He taught himself to read, first looking at the simple pictures of gallant knights rescuing maidens and slaying fierce dragons, and was enthralled by the concept of a just king ruling over the land and making all of the people happy. He learned the names of the gods the people worshipped, from Molog, the god of the mountains, to Harryp, the god of strength, to the Ebony Raven, the dealer of every being’s fate and the final arbiter where they go when they die. The Keverses themselves had a wooden symbol of Detroia, the goddess of civilization and law, nailed above the doorway- but they never acknowledged it unless visitors were over. But it all had to be lies. How could a king allow someone like the Keverses to treat someone like Artemis the way that they do? How was such injustice allowed? And if gods really did exist, watching over all and granting favor and blessing upon those who need it most, how did none of them send someone to rescue him? Despite all of this yearning and constant toil, how was it that Artemis was given no quarter, no respite, no ability to escape this life? And his parents- how could they be so cruel as to leave him alone in such a world?

His frustration reaching a climax, he grabbed a stick off the ground and swung it, his fists clenched around one end, into the nearest rock as hard as he could, as he’d done many times when his frustration became unbearable. It splintered and sent pieces flying, and he continued to beat the stump against the ground until his hands ached and the tears stung in his eyes. He wanted nothing more than to have his own life, his own history, his own future. His own name.

It was getting late. He had spent the entire day fetching water from the river. The summer’s drought had dried up the well, and the only source of water was half a day’s travel away. He was sent to the river early that morning (after being woken up even earlier to get his chores done, of course) and was only now returning, as the sun set over the hills ahead of him. Being away from the homestead, on those rare occasions when he had to be, was such a welcome reprieve, but he knew that if he wasn’t home by sundown, he would receive one of the most severe beatings he’d ever received. He had thought, of course, of simply running away. Maybe he could survive on his own in the wilderness. He could be free, living on his own terms. Except… he still wouldn’t be free. He still wouldn’t be living life on his own terms. He would be constantly looking over his shoulder, knowing that some day his past would come back to haunt him. He would still be a slave, just an escaped slave. He knew nothing of the outside world. He didn’t know the way to the nearest town, or even the nearest landowner, and all he had ever heard about the wilderness was that it was full of deadly monsters and dangers that meant certain death for anyone who wandered where they shouldn’t. Even if living as a slave to the Keverses was a living hell, the uncertainty of running away, with still no life of his own, terrified him even more than daily beatings and endless menial chores.

After destroying the stick on his surroundings, he picked up the buckets of water and once again began carrying them in the direction of the homestead. With any luck, he’d reach home in time and the obligatory punishment for existing wouldn’t be as severe. He hurried along the path, gradually beginning to tell himself again that some day, things would be different.

As he neared the last hill at the edge of the homestead, he had begun to think that the sun had finally set- until he saw the last of its rays poking over the hillock ahead of him. When he began to climb the last incline, however, he realized that the smell he had begun to notice some time ago was not that of the evening’s dinner being cooked, nor was it the smell of Mr. Keverse burning a pile of old branches. When he glanced over the crest of the hill, he caught the light he had mistaken for the last of the sun’s rays- coming off of the mangled, destroyed building engulfed in flame that once was the home in which he spent his entire life.

The building was not simply on fire- it was destroyed. The door had been torn clean from its hinges, the windows shattered inward. A section of wall on the side of the homestead was torn apart as if a mighty battering ram had tried to knock the entire building down. All around the property a thousand bloody footprints trailed, as if an entire army had come through and destroyed the Keverse home, and they created their own path back out into the wilderness. Artemis stood, no longer aware of the aching pain in his arms from carrying buckets of water all day long. Without even realizing it, he let the buckets fall, and they hit the ground, spilled their contents, and rolled away down the hill, never to be seen or even thought of again. He slumped to his knees, staring at the diminished hulk of a structure that was all he had ever known. Thoughts passed through his mind, none of them pausing for a moment to consider trying to stop the blaze or rescue anyone or anything that may be trapped inside. Most of all, he was terrified- this was his entire existence, burning to the ground. Once the fire was inevitably satiated, there would be nothing left for him in the entire world. Even if the Keverses had survived and were safe somewhere, everything that had ever been his- though he could hardly say he owned anything- was reduced to a cinder. And if the Keverses were dead, then that meant that everyone he had ever known was dead, just like his parents. Despite the circumstances, part of him felt like the entire world was abandoning him, and would continue to do so every time he tried to rebuild his life. But there was nothing he could do.

The fire raged for several more hours, hungrily eating away at the wooden supports of the building. Artemis never saw it completely subside, for as he sat there, on his knees, watching the fire as long as he could, eventually his body gave in to weariness, slumping over and forcing him into a troubled sleep.

Morning came, but as much as Artemis hoped it brought with it the realization that it was all a dream, his first sight was the still-smoking remains of his home. Despite his aching body, he stood slowly and walked towards the wreckage, pausing momentarily, out of habit, to open the door (although the door itself lay shattered several feet away). He stepped into the shell of a building, the floorboards- the only part of the house that hadn’t been damaged beyond what was likely a permanent blackening- creaking beneath his feet. He moved the charred pieces of furniture- now far beyond any sort of repair he had ever done- and looked for… something. Anything to give him a semblance of what to do or how to do it. Reaching one corner of the building, an area that at one point had been the Keverses’ bedroom, he pulled aside a pile of burnt roofing and was horrified at what he saw. Two human bodies, having been hacked apart by something powerful and bladed, lay huddled against the wall. As Artemis pulled aside the barrier covering them, the stench of burnt flesh and human fat assaulted his senses, and he vomited on the floor before he could stop himself. He stumbled away, his eyes beginning to lose focus, and he found himself falling to the ground, passing through where a wall once stood, until he landed on an area of floor that looked almost completely untouched by the fire. Once he had a moment to regain his composure, he realized that he had unconsciously navigated to what was once his hidden crawlspace, the single secret spot he could go to be alone and safe from everything around him. Laying there, still tasting the vomit in his mouth, still smelling the ghost of burning flesh in his nostrils, he closed his eyes tightly, wishing to once again be able to lay here in his hiding place, safe from the world around him.

When he opened his eyes, he noticed something. One of the floorboards that lined the hidden crawlspace had come loose, and through the tiny gap, Artemis could see something in the space beneath. He sat up, reaching his filthy soot-blackened hands into the gap between the boards, pulling with all his might. His arms were weak and the obstacle seemed like it was immovable, but he put every last ounce of strength into the effort. The board broke from its place, and he tossed it aside, panting. Beneath it was a bundle of what appeared to be rags, covered with years’ worth of dirt and dust but unharmed by the blaze. He reached a hand in, taking hold of the bundle and pulling it out. As he unfolded it, his mind raced, wondering what he might have found- could it be a piece of antique jewelry? Some sort of ancient relic, perhaps holding some kind of magical power? Or even a pile of gems, hidden away and forgotten? As he unwrapped the last rag holding this treasure, his hands trembling, he saw that the rags themselves were holding not some precious jewel, but instead another piece of cloth. Taking a moment of reverence, Artemis wiped his hands off vigorously on one of the rags, and then held up the cloth. It was a shirt, well-made and crafted of white linen, its sleeves dyed a beautiful red color. As he ran it smoothly against his skin, admiring its condition considering how long it must have been lying there forgotten, closing his eyes, he held it close to his face and inhaled a deep breath. Through the smoke and still-lingering stench of death, he felt the faintest of scents that struck a chord in his memory.

For a briefest glimpse of a moment, he saw what could only be described as an echo- not even a real image or even a memory- of a man, wearing this shirt, holding a newborn child in his arms as his wife gazed lovingly. As his eyes suddenly opened and he came back to reality, he realized something.

This was my father’s.

He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew. He took one last deep breath, taking with it the only memory of his parents that he would ever know. Sitting there, with the shirt in his hands, he began to weep- but the tears that cascaded down his face were ones unlike any tears he had ever felt. For the first time in his life, he actually felt a semblance of true hope.

He walked away from the homestead moments later, wearing the white shirt with the red sleeves. He didn’t know where he was going, but the choice to go was his and his alone. For the first time in his life, Artemis was proud. Wearing that shirt, he felt like his parents were there with him, allowing him to make his own future, a future they were unable to give him. He carried with him his own life, his own history. He was no longer the boy with no name- for now he had a name.

His name was Artemis Redsleeves.

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