Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 12

Ben Arons awoke on an average morning to the sound of birds chirping. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, a stray wave of sunlight hit his eyes, particles of dust dancing through the air as the light passed through the old, dirty shutters. He had fallen asleep on a pile of old tattered blankets- he tried to think back to the night previous, wondering why he was laying on this pile of blankets to begin with. After some time, he discarded the thought and opened the rusty shutters, letting some more light into the room.

The room he was in was, once, an impressive common room. A large fireplace dominated one end of the room, and across from the fireplace stood a crumbling, sawdust-filled stuffed bear- once both majestic and terrifying, the ravages of time had turned it into a pitiful representation of the conquest over a deadly beast. The ceiling, vaulted nearly twelve feet high, had several weak patches where water leaked when it rained, and pieces of the thatched roof had come apart and fallen into the room below. Debris, both ruined pieces of the structure and tools gathered to some day repair that ruin, cluttered the room everywhere the eye could see. The center of the room once held a grand oak table, but four square imprints in the dust and grime-filled rug below were the only evidence it existed, its components stripped and used for some other project years ago.

Stifling a large loud yawn, Ben walked past another large room, this one considerably more squat, and much darker, its window shutters having been nailed shut long ago. Shadows of bunk beds, in two rows along the walls, hid in the darkness beyond. He crossed the common room to a smaller doorway, entering a tiny kitchen, quite unlike the grandiose den he had just left. He opened up a cupboard and fetched a loaf of stale bread, tearing himself off a piece and savoring it to the last crumb, gazing out the northeast-facing window as he ate. From here, on this hill, he could see an unspoiled view of the countryside. On the northern side, a mountain plateau was just barely visible through the mid-morning haze, and on the eastern side he could see the mighty eastern forest.

Some day, Ben thought, I'll venture out into the eastern forest and see what's out there. Maybe I'll build something.

Once he was done enjoying his hunk of bread, Ben stepped across the kitchen into his workshop, which- unlike last night- typically also served as his master bedroom. Tools and pieces of woodwork and masonry littered the room, much like the rest of the building. He grabbed a satchel, picked up several of the tools and some of the materials, stowed them in the bag, and walked back through the kitchen, and out the back door.

The back door opened out onto a large, once-impressive porch that wrapped all the way around to the front of the building- but this porch, like the rest of the structure, had not been very well-kept. Around the front of the building, by the door that led into the grand common room, was a metal triangle and connected beater, designed to alert the building's occupants of meal or meeting times. A pile of wood boards, stained and warped by the elements despite the cover of the porch's awning, lay silently, awaiting the day when their owner would build them into a set of rocking chairs.

The building belonged to Ben Arons, and was given to him by his grandfather when he came of age many years ago. It was originally built as a garrison for the local militia- but when the number of recruits was far too low to need a dedicated garrison, it fell into disrepair. Try as he might, Ben was just never able to keep up with the constant need for repairs: the roof, the walls, the windows- everything needed replacing, and there just wasn't time to fix it all.

It wasn't that Ben Arons was unskilled or unable to repair his home- quite the contrary: when he could focus on a task, he would complete it with a master's competence. But though he never admitted to it, he had great difficulty in focusing on one task at a time. Every time he would gather the materials to fix the roof, he'd realize that his ladder was in dire need of repair. In order to repair the ladder, he'd have to search through his tools to find the right set of saws and lathes. And in doing so, he'd realize that the door to his workshop needed to be fixed, and by the time he was able to do that he'd notice a host of other things to distract him. And this was all in his free time- his job, as local tinkerer and handyman, was to travel across the countryside to various homesteads and businesses, promoting his service wherever it was needed. It seemed he had no problems focusing on a task when he was getting paid for it- whether it was fixing the general store's roof, or inventing a new machine for harvesting wheat, or building the perfect trough for the local pig farm. But then, once he got home and he finally had time to work on his list of personal tasks, he'd lose track of everything and wind up falling asleep on some old blankets in the common room.

And so, here he was, on a completely average day. He walked through town, smiled to all of the townsfolk he passed, and stopped in at the Rusted Drake for a flagon of ale before making his rounds. He chatted with Primm for a bit too long, drank a few more drinks than he meant to, ordered dinner without even realizing how late it was, and before he knew it, he was stumbling out of the bar at sunset, his round cheeks a bit redder than usual and his rotund belly protruding more than most days. He saw a group of girls walk by- some farmers' daughters, girls he had seen around town, easily half his age. In his drunken state, he imagined himself walking up to them, causing the lot of them to swoon with his silver tongue, and then asking the prettiest of them to be his wife, and then sweeping her up into his suddenly muscular arms, taking her home to his mansion on the hill. Then, just maybe, he'd finally fix it up and get everything done in a timely manner.

By the time he realized how idiotic of an idea this all was, he had already walked up to the girls, babbled incoherently for a few minutes, and then collapsed on the ground, blacking out from the alcohol. When he came to, he was being shaken to consciousness. He opened his eyes, and the image before him came to focus- of a stunning, raven-haired beauty the likes of which he had never lain his eyes on. With a sudden rush of sobriety, he sat up, his face beet-red, and immediately began apologizing for everything he may have said or done. The woman kneeling over him, however, simply giggled, smiled, and blushed.

He asked her if he had met her before, and she shook her head. Feeling a confidence uncharacteristic of him (at least while he was sober), he asked her if he might escort her around town. She nodded. He leapt to his feet, took her slender, shapely hand in his meaty fist, and walked with her under the moonlight.

When he awoke the next morning, he had the biggest smile on his face he had ever felt. He couldn't quite remember everything that had happened- he knew he met a beautiful girl, he knew that he showed her around town, and he knew that she seemed to love hearing him talk- about himself, about the town, about whatever he felt like saying- and she didn't talk much herself. But he remembered her telling him her name. Her name was Lyria.

He jumped out of bed, throwing clothes on and rushing out the door. It was early- much earlier than he was accustomed to waking- and he saw grouchy old Daggit Morrel, the town's tanner, heading to his tannery north of town. Ben ran down the path to meet him, eager to share the news of what could only have been the love of his life.

Daggit, being the rude curmudgeon he was, not only didn't care, he laughed in Ben's face at the prospect of the paunchy tinkerer finding a woman who could stand being around him. He was slightly offended, but Ben wouldn't let one sourpuss bring down his mood- he just felt too good.

He went about his rounds for the day, sharing the tale of the beautiful girl he had met with everyone he saw. Nobody seemed to have met her, but that just meant she must have been new to the area. The mysterious beauty Lyria was all he could think about until night fell, and then he sat outside on his front porch overlooking the town, his beady eyes darting to and fro, looking everywhere he could for another glance at her. He sat for hours, his emotions dancing up and down on his mind as he wondered where she was, whether she was coming, or whether he had simply imagined her. Just as his fatigue was beginning to get the best of him and he was considering heading back in for bed, he closed his eyes for the briefest of moments, and when he opened them again, she was there, smiling at him from the edge of the nearby pond. She wore a long white dress that danced in the wind, and a wide-brimmed white sunhat despite the late hour. She gestured for him to come with her, and without hesitation, he followed.

That night she led him to a small rowboat that sat docked behind a group of bushes just outside town, and the two of them sat under the stars, feeling the motion of the river rocking their boat back and forth, staring into each other's eyes. Ben kept trying to think of things to say, questions to ask her, ways to express his feelings, but before he could get a chance to speak she'd catch his eye with hers in the perfect way, and it would take his breath away.

Once again, he awoke early the next morning, in his own bed, unsure of exactly what happened after the boat, but knowing that he had an amazing time with a beautiful woman. The shape of her eyes, the way her hair fell over her shoulders and danced in the wind, the pale color of her skin in the moonlight- it was all he could think of day in, and day out.

He waited up for her every night, and every night she returned. She always looked exactly the same, yet somehow more radiant and more beautiful than the night before. Some nights he did all of the talking, other nights neither of them talked at all- but he never felt like their relationship was anything but perfect. One night, she showed up at his house, and when he tried to speak, she placed a finger to his lips, smiling warmly to him. She took his hand, and the two of them began to run. They ran, without tiring, for over an hour, following the Kellon river northward. At a fork in the road they left the edge of the river, and continued on into the woods, near the plateau Ben had seen off on the horizon so many times. Lyria led him down a path that seemed to appear before them, and up against the hill they reached a beautiful quaint cabin, startlingly clean and pristine despite the surrounding wilds, and she led him inside. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace, and the two of them laid down on a soft plush rug, embracing and letting their desires loose.

He awoke the next morning, once again feeling happier than he had ever felt in his life. He walked around town, whistling his favorite tune and waving hello to everyone he passed. By now, everyone in town had heard him tell of his nighttime trysts with this raven-haired beauty- some people, like the grouchy Daggit, had heard it so many times that they threatened violence against Ben if he wouldn't stop telling them at every opportunity. Just when he thought nothing could possibly bring his spirits down, something happened that he hadn't anticipated.

Lyria stopped visiting him.

He stayed up that night, all night, so exhausted that his body was ready to collapse, until dawn. But she never showed up. The morning sun brought him renewed vigor, and he spent the entire day running around town, asking anyone and everyone who would give him the time of day whether they had seen Lyria, or heard from her- but since none of them had seen or heard from her in the first place, none of them were any help. Ben even asked Daggit for help, only to be laughed at once again by the old man. Daggit expressed great pleasure in the hope that someone had kidnapped her, just so that he would never have to hear any more of Ben's stories.

When the sun began to set that night, Ben could barely keep his eyes open. He swore to himself that he would stay up until she returned to him, and he sat on the porch where she often visited him, wrapped in one of his tattered blankets, hoping to see her approach once more. But each time he blinked, his eyes lingered just a bit longer, just a bit longer, just… a bit…

He saw the Kell river from above, as if he were flying. He could neither hear nor feel anything, but he saw the bushes that Lyria had kept the rowboat that the two of them had sat in. He reached forward to push the bushes aside, and though he saw no hand, he witnessed the bushes move aside on their own. Behind it, the rowboat lay in the water, overturned, and Lyria's white sunhat lay submerged, pinned to the riverbank by the boat's prow.

He let out a silent scream, shocking himself to consciousness. He awoke in a cold sweat, the sky still dark- the sun had not yet risen. He stood, feeling slightly feverish, and ran clumsily down the hill towards the river, where he had seen the boat in his dream. When he got to the bushes, he pushed them aside, practically tearing them from the ground- and he sank to his knees as he saw the boat, exactly as he had dreamt it, submerged. Lyria's white hat was still pinned to the riverbank.

He sobbed loud aching sobs into the pre-dawn air, tears streaming down his round face. This couldn't be. It simply couldn't. This had to be some sort of a dream. He beat his chest, he yanked some of the hairs from his head, he tore at his clothes with his trembling hands. He felt pain, inside and out. As the sun finally came over the horizon, he pulled himself to his feet, quieted his sobs, and slumped back to his home, where he cried himself into a cold, bitter sleep.

For the next two days, he never left his house- or even his bedroom. He lay in his bed, covering his eyes with a tattered blanket every time the sun tried to rouse him, half-waking, half-sleeping. A few times there was a knock on the door, but he never bothered to answer it. The pain was too great. As the sun began to set on the third night after Lyria stopped coming to him, he felt himself suddenly gripped in another dream.

He was sitting on the roof of his house, once again feeling like he was floating above it, yet he could see himself sitting. His dream-self sat there, sobbing in anguish, and it stood up, looking down over the edge of the roof. Ben could feel that his dream-self was contemplating ending it all, taking his own life- when he saw a wispy hand touch his shoulder.

He turned around startled, and saw her. Lyria was there, before him, except she was made of smoke, threatening to be blown away by the smallest gust. She looked him in the eyes, and he could feel her voice resonating in his mind.

Ben, my love, you must remain strong. You are the prophet, the one who will guide your people through great tribulation.

He stared at her, confused, wanting so badly to reach out and touch her once again, but he felt he could not.

Kellonville will face a great trial by fire. You must warn them.

He tried to ask her what she meant, to tell him what he must do, but by the time he managed to get the words out, his eyes were open and he was lying in his bed, staring at the ceiling, speaking the words to nobody. But he knew what he must do.

He threw on whatever dirty clothes he could find, and ran out into the streets of Kellonville, shouting warnings to everyone within earshot. He shouted warnings of a trial, of fire, of something. What few people actually listened to him had no idea what he meant, and he was unable to clarify. In the end, his warnings- however insubstantial they may have been- went unheeded.

By the end of the day, he began to wonder if he was going mad from grief, and he wondered if Lyria's "warning" was simply the ravings of a dream figment. But that night, he climbed onto his roof to try and think and make sense of it all, and it started to rain. At first it was a mere sprinkling rain, but soon it got harder, and harder, and then there began thunder so loud it felt like the gods were tearing the sky in two, and lightning brighter than the sun at midday. Ben started climbing from the roof, just in time to see an arc of brilliant lightning lance across town, and strike the Valdoorn farm further down the river. As the lightning struck the ground, that farm's crops burst into flame like dry sticks despite the downpour.

The fire raged for nearly an hour, ravaging at least one farm's livelihood, killing numerous livestock, and threatening that family's lives. By the time the blaze was brought under control, the storm stopped- inexplicably- as if it had never began. The town was speechless. Ben, terrified of what he had foretold, locked himself inside his home, and hid under tattered blankets under the leaky roof until the next day.

A few days later, Ben had another dream. He dreamt that he was once again with Lyria, this time they were walking along through the fields around town. She was once again ghostly and immaterial, and yet again Ben felt like he was floating, watching the scene unfold. She spoke to him again, yet again he felt her words rather than heard them.

You must warn your people of difficult times ahead. This year's winter will come early, and all may be lost. Ben, my beloved, you must warn them.

They stood amidst rows of barley and oats, and suddenly he felt- he truly felt- the air around him get cold, freezing even, as if the seasons had suddenly changed in an instant. As he watched, the crops began to grow frail, and then wither, and fall to pieces in the icy wind.

He awoke, freezing to the bone in his bed, despite the warm sunlight cascading in through the shutters. Once again, he ran through town, gathering up everyone who would listen so that he could preach to them his warnings of difficult times. Nobody listened, still, despite his insistence that the crops were in danger. Everyone dismissed him as mad, until the next morning, when the families operating the communal farm just south of town awoke to find their crops completely frozen, and covered in a sheet of ice. Ben tried to walk through the town's streets that day, only to find people avoiding him like he bore the plague.

Two nights later, he once again had a vivid dream. He dreamt he was in the boat, no longer capsized, with the ghost of Lyria. She had tears in her eyes, and Ben could tell that she longed to touch him as much as he longed to touch her.

Ben, I fear the worst. Your town- your people- their livelihood is at stake. The flames of retribution are coming, my love.

She pointed up the river, where Ben saw several logs floating towards the town, as they often did on their way to be split at the town mill. Except as they neared the town, they suddenly burst into flames, and when they reached the edge of town, the buildings themselves caught fire, razing the town to the ground. Ben began shaking his head in terror. It couldn't be. It couldn't be true.

This time, when he tried to yell his warnings to the townsfolk, he was surprised to see that not everyone was avoiding or ignoring him. Some people were actually following him, listening to his warnings. A good amount still averted their eyes and closed their doors when he came near, but not everyone.

Tyffina Dacek, the owner of the town mill, paid no heed to Ben's warnings, and in fact insisted that her hired hands continue to work even into the late hours of the night (which was not uncommon for her to do even under normal circumstances). One of her workers, however, a young man named Edward, was deeply unnerved by the handyman's predictions, and as he worked, he stayed at sharp attention. So, that night, when a lantern mysteriously exploded near a pile of timber, it caught his attention immediately- and, by calling local townspeople for help so soon, they were able to contain the blaze before it engulfed the building. By the time the fire was put out, it had only caused cosmetic damage to one side of the mill.

The next morning, there was a loud knock on Ben's front door, which he nervously answered. Behind it was Charles Telstedler, the dark-haired half-elf that owned the Rusted Drake. His demeanor was especially serious that morning, and rather than attempt pleasantries, he cut to the chase and told Ben that the town elders had decided to hold a town meeting the next morning to talk about the "late unpleasantness" and that he, Ben Arons, would be expected to attend. Charles didn't come out and say it, but Ben got the impression that some of the elders thought he was responsible.

Ben spent the rest of the day sitting, by himself, in his home, where he had spent the last several days since the night Lyria stopped showing up at his door. He felt like he hadn't eaten in days, and, the more he thought about it, the more he realized it was true. He began to wonder if he was indeed somehow responsible, and he really was a lunatic who was taking out his crazed frustration on the town where his forefathers had lived before him. He stepped out of his home, wearing only a worn robe around himself, and looked up at the sky, asking the gods why this was happening, why he had to have gotten caught up in this.

When he brought his gaze back down, he saw the town of Kellonville, usually still alive with occasional townsfolk walking around at night, and smoke wafting from the chimney of the Rusted Drake or some of the homes even at the witching hour, he saw nobody- no movement, no people, nothing. He walked towards the town, barefoot across the rocky path yet feeling no pain, until he reached the town square. It was completely empty, and eerily silent.

After a moment, he began to realize what was going on. He spoke, aloud, asking Lyria what she was showing him.

She appeared beside him, ghost-like and wispy as ever. She looked deep into his eyes, and he looked back. He felt tears rolling down his face, once again remembering the times they had spent together.

This is your town, empty, void of life, my dear Ben. Look, to the east. A great evil comes, and it comes to devour the souls of every one of your people.

She pointed towards the eastern forest, where he could see a great fiery cloud rising over the trees, threatening to rain fire and brimstone on all of the land. The cloud formed into a terrifying monster, its jaws eager to devour everyone and everything in its path. He didn't understand why. He pleaded with her to explain. Had he caused this? Was everyone dead because of him?

She shook her head and smiled a soft, tearful smile.

No, my sweet. You have saved all of your people. The town is empty because you warned them, and they fled. You must guide them. Guide them to our secret place, and they will be safe. I know you can. I trust in you.

She placed her ghostly hand on his cheek, and he actually felt it. He held onto it as long as he could, feeling the tears pour down his face. When he awoke, he was in bed, once again feeling the early morning sun on his face. He could still feel her words in his mind.

Our secret place, my love. I trust in you.

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