The day was beautiful. Perfect, even.
Too beautiful, thought Artemis. Too beautiful to be stuck up here, fixing the roof.
He had awoken just before dawn, as he had the two previous days, by the red-skinned Sir Tarrow, who was far more awake than the hour merited. It had been more than two years since he had slept in a real bed, made for a real person to get real sleep. It had been more than two years since he could truly rest, and stop glancing over his shoulder for whatever danger may be coming. And, to his understanding, it had been even longer for any of the other knights. Why couldn't they just stay in bed and get some much-deserved rest?
"Because," said Sir Tarrow. "The day we stop being alert is the day we get blindsided. A knight never rests, never stops watching. If you aren't ready for that, maybe you aren't cut out to be a knight."
Artemis had heard these words before. In fact, they had this argument on a fairly regular basis. Perhaps it was one of Artemis' failings; then again, perhaps that was Sir Tarrow's way of telling Artemis that he was tired, too, and that he wished he could relax. But life experiences had taught him the danger of relaxing.
Every time they had this argument, Artemis was reminded of his dream- to become a knight. To become a noble. To some day live in peace with a family and a legacy to pass on. Was he any closer to this goal? Was he ever going to become a knight?
Of course I am, he thought. We've finally found somewhere we can live, somewhere we can regroup. Make a plan. Maybe get some help. As far as becoming a knight, I just need to be more patient.
The last two days had been spent fixing up this old house that Ben Arons gifted them. It was amazing to have a house, a home, but there was a lot of work to be done. First they cleared out the common room, salvaging what could be used for scrap and discarding the rest. The room was dominated by what was probably once a ferocious bear, poised on its hind legs and in the middle of a fearsome roar, but it was so fallen apart that it had to be thrown away. Sir Tarrow said he had a plan for something to replace it, but wouldn't explain any further.
After the common room, they fixed up the barracks, which meant that each of them would have their own bed- as in, the non-rollable kind- and there were plenty more to spare, in case they ever recruited more members to their cause. It really began to sank in to Artemis' mind- they wouldn't be sleeping on the ground anymore. No more folding up tents every single morning. No more living at the mercy of the wind and the rain.
Well, the rain ended up being a problem. It had rained rather fiercely the second night in the new home, and rain poured through numerous holes in the roof, in every room. And so, this morning, Sir Tarrow's assignment for Artemis and Grash was to replace any damaged boards in the roof.
The morning was cold and clear- leading to a beautiful, cloudless midday. Artemis and Grash began by using spare clapboards left over from some of the previous occupant's abandoned endeavors, but by noon Grash had to leave to go find more materials. Artemis was left up on the roof, his face dripping with sweat from the clear day's heat. He wasn't tired- he had been put through so much grueling work over the last two years, not to mention the countless days of menial labor in the hot sun and bitter cold when he lived with the Keverses, but it had been a long time since he felt like his work was pointless. No, not pointless- of course the lodge needed a roof. But he just wished he could be enjoying the day. It was the third day in what felt like a lifetime that he wasn't wearing his armor from sunrise to sunset- Sanna was the only one who still felt the need- under a beautiful sun shining off the crystal clear stream on one side of the building, and the cool refreshing pond on the other. Speaking of the pond…
Artemis heard a noise, like yelling. No, it wasn't yelling- it was laughing. He had been watching the town from his high vantage point with half of his attention all morning, and people went to and fro, going about their business- but this caught his eye. There was a group of boys, six or seven of them, roughly his age, running across town square. They raced over the bridge by the mill, past the tannery, towards the pond to the north. All the while, they were laughing, telling jokes, and rejoicing in the fact that they had dodged their chores this beautiful day.
Artemis sat and stared. He had never known anyone his own age other than the Keverses' bratty son Orin, and certainly nobody he could have run and joked and played with. He let out a sigh as he stared at the group have fun, wishing more than anything else he could be one of them, instead of the squire fixing a roof while running from a king that wanted to kill him.
Artemis heard a deep voice clear its throat nearby, and he nearly jumped off the roof in surprise. He looked towards the ladder, and Grash was visible from the waist up, a pile of boards resting on the edge of the roof. From where he was positioned, he had likely seen Artemis watch what was unfolding.
"I remember what it was like to be young," the draconian said with a playful tone, staring off at the boys taking off their shirts at the edge of the water. "It certainly would have been a shame to miss out on such an opportunity on a day like this." He began to climb back down the ladder. As he disappeared from view, he added, "I'd think up a good excuse to tell Tarrow if I were you."
A huge grin spread across Artemis' face, and he slid himself down to the edge of the roof, and climbed halfway down the ladder. Jumping down the rest of the way, he took off towards the pond, laughing all the way.
The group of boys had stripped down to just their underclothes, and were taking turns climbing an old tree at the water's edge. One of the branches reached out across the pond, and someone had tied a long rope to it. From the right position, if one was athletic enough, they could jump out over the water, grab the rope, and swing a good distance further before releasing, making quite an impressive splash. If one wasn't coordinated enough, or clumsy, or failed to grasp the timing, it could be dangerous.
As Artemis approached, the rest of the boys stopped what they were doing and looked at him in silence, unsure of what to do or how to act. Two were already floating in the water, one stood up in the tree, and the others stood in a line at the tree's base. Artemis, easily the biggest one there, simply kicked off his boots, took off his red-sleeved shirt, and stepped in front of the line. He began climbing the tree, and the boy already up there stepped aside, holding onto one of the other branches to remain stable. Artemis got to the top, looked out at the old rope dangling above the water, pressed his heels against the tree, and leapt. He grabbed onto the rope at the last moment, swinging further than any of the others, and let go. He hit the water with a massive splash, bigger than anyone else, and when he surfaced, they were all cheering for him.
When he came back to the edge of the pond, they all crowded around him, wanting to meet him, wanting to talk to him. The oldest of them, a lean sandy-haired boy, pushed the others out of the way and held his hand out, smiling. "We heard you killed a dragon," he said. "My name's Falric."
Artemis smiled back, shaking his hand firmly. "I'm Artemis. Artemis Redsleeves. And yeah, I guess I did."
"Welcome to Kellonville, Artemis."
The group of them spent the majority of the remaining daylight playing in the pond, telling stories, splashing about, and cracking jokes. All of them wanted to know everything about Artemis- where he was from, how he met the rest of the knights, how he learned to fight so well, what it was like traveling with Sanna, what her likes and dislikes were, and so on- things Artemis began to assume were standard talk among boys his age. He tried to answer the questions the best he could, but certain details- like where they were from, and why they were there- were a little hard to answer, since the rest of the Horselords hadn't yet decided what to do with that information.
At about sundown, they were all lounging on the side of the pond when another boy ran up from the edge of the river.
"Guys!" he yelled. "I just heard a bunch of the girls went across to the treehouses! I say we go join 'em!"
The rest of the boys cheered in approval, but Artemis didn't understand.
"The treehouses? Where's that?"
Falric grinned, grabbed something from his discarded clothing, and began running. "Follow me!"
They ran to the river near town square, where a black-haired dwarf sat near a rowboat, a fishing rod in hand, his stubby feet dangling into the water.
"Hey, Buren! Did the girls cross over to the treehouses a little while ago?"
The dwarf nodded his head, chewing on a long piece of grass.
"That they did. I'm assuming you boys are up to some mischief?"
"You know it," replied Falric. "Can you take us?"
Buren looked off into the setting sun, which was casting pink and orange shadows across the town. "I don't know. It's getting late. Do you have something for me?"
Falric grinned and held out a round, shiny stone. "I found that one in the stream this morning. I thought you might like it."
The dwarf looked it over, and whatever it was must have been satisfactory, because he stuck the end of his fishing rod into a small gap in the dock's boards, put the stone into his pocket, and stood up on his short legs. He hopped into his rowboat, grabbed the oars, and looked back at the boys. "Are you coming or not?"
The rest of the boys clapped hands together, and ran to the boat. Artemis, Falric, and whoever else could fit sat in the boat, and the rest of the boys hopped back into the water, holding onto the sides of the boat to help them across. The river was slow enough to let them cross easily, but fast enough that an unprepared swimmer could be swept away.
After a short while, they arrived at the other side of the Kellon river. Artemis could see a few wooden structures, about the size of a shed or small hut, built in the thick wall of trees bordering the water. They could hear high-pitched voices, and lots of giggling, coming from one of the structures, and in the dim dusk light, it looked like the occupants had lit a few candles inside.
"Nobody knows who built these treehouses," began Falric, "but they've been here as long as anyone can remember. Sometimes all of us will come here and play games, or just get away from our parents." Everyone climbed onto the shore on the west side of the river, and Buren gave a wave as he began rowing back home. "The cabins all have candles inside. When we're done here, we just use one to signal Buren and he'll come back and get us."
"What was that thing you gave him?" asked Artemis as they walked through the trees to the nearest treehouse. Falric went first, climbing a set of boards nailed into the tree's wide trunk. "Just a shiny rock," Falric called down behind him. "He's always liked rocks. All you have to do to get a ride from him is give him a rock that looks nice."
The boards led up through the floor of the wooden room above them. Inside, there were wooden benches, some small tables, shelves and storage containers- and it appeared that care was taken by everyone who used the house to stock it with simple comforts- blankets, pillows, canteens for water, sets of dice, and so on. The walls each bore a wide window that let air blow through the structure, and some of the last rays of the setting sun could still be seen shining through the trees. The ceiling was just low enough that Artemis had to stoop slightly to move around.
"What do you guys do up here?"
Falric grabbed a few of the canteens and tossed one to him, sitting down on a bench. Opening it up, he took a swig. "Play games, have fun, talk about girls. You know, that kind of stuff."
Artemis nodded, still new to all of this. He opened up his canteen for a drink, and realized that it was filled with alcohol, not water. Cheap, watery alcohol, but alcohol nonetheless. Glancing out the window, he could see a slightly larger treehouse slightly farther up the shore, and beyond that was the treehouse where candles were lit and they could see and hear people moving through the dim light.
"Those are girls over there," Artemis asked, taking another drink. "Why don't we go over there?"
The rest of the boys laughed, and made vulgar comments in response. Falric, yelling at the rest of them to settle down, explained, "It's the rule. The men have this side, and the girls have that side. We aren't allowed on each other's sides. If we signal to them first, we can all go to the one in the middle."
Artemis raised an eyebrow. "Who made these rules? And who's enforcing them?"
Falric shrugged. "I don't know. That's just how we've always done it."
"Well," said Artemis, "how do we signal them?"
One of the boys walked up with lit candle, holding it up in the window. Placing his hand in front of it to block the light, he moved his hand back and forth, making some sort of a pattern. After a few moments, the girls' chatter stopped, and soon a light could be seen in their window, echoing the same pattern. The rest of the boys, seeing this, cheered. Artemis, however, was still a little lost.
They all climbed down the tree, and ran to the one in the center, where the trunk had two ladders, one on each side. The boys climbed up their side first to enter a similar treehouse, but it was furnished much more comfortably- the floor was covered in a woven rug, the benches were all covered in soft fabric, and the windows had shutters that could be latched shut. They all sat down and waited, most of them getting giddy and excited, waiting for the girls to arrive. Artemis felt strange- he was nervous. He had never spent any appreciable amount of time in the presence of a girl his age. He didn't know if he should be excited, or scared. He didn't know what to do- he certainly didn't feel like he could tell any of the rest of the boys about it.
After a few minutes, a girl with a head of curly brown hair popped up through the hole in the floor, followed by another girl, and another, and so on. Before long, the treehouse was full of people- all Artemis' age, all happy, all excited. Everyone was talking to one another, everyone was laughing, everyone was flirting, everyone was having a great time. Falric introduced almost all of the girls to Artemis, who just smiled and said greetings each time. He wasn't sure if they were interested in him, if they wanted to talk to him, if they cared about him at all- his head was swimming with everything that was happening. After a while, he began to feel uncomfortable. He tapped Falric on the shoulder- just as he was bragging to a group of the girls about a fish he had caught the day before- and told him he was heading back to town, and then climbed back down before he got a response. When he reached the edge of the river, it was already dark, the full moon visible through the few clouds. He didn't have anything to signal Buren, so he just waded out into the flowing water and swam across. Once on the other side, he walked back to the pond to retrieve his shirt and boots.
Glancing up at the knights' lodge, Artemis didn't see any lights in the windows. He was reminded of how he had left his chores behind, and knew that Sir Tarrow was going to be upset. And if he was going to be upset, he might as well take a little walk by himself and clear his head first.
Feeling the night's chill coming on, he pulled his shirt back on, and held his boots at his side as he walked around to town square barefoot. Most of the businesses appeared closed for the night, but Artemis figured he'd head to the tavern and see if any of his companions were there. He rounded the corner rather quickly, and almost bumped right into someone.
A girl, almost his age, stopped abruptly in front of him. Their eyes met, and instantly Artemis was frozen in place. Her eyes were the purest blue, her hair golden, her lips red as ruby, her skin fair- only slightly darkened by the sun. Her slender form was so beautiful, so perfect, that she almost seemed to radiate light in the moonlit square. She wore a simple peasant's dress, and held a small bundle of lumber in her arms, almost dropping them as she started.
Artemis felt a thousand lifetimes pass in this one moment, lost in her blue eyes. Blue like the ocean he'd dreamed of but never seen.
He was vaguely aware of his mouth trying to form the word "Sorry", but nothing came out. He stood, affixed in place, and she stood looking up at him. As suddenly as they met, another figure stepped into view- a tall man, skin rough and worn by years in the sun, came around the corner and, seeing the two of them, split them apart with a thrust of his arm. He put his hand on the young girl's shoulder, wordlessly guiding her around Artemis so they could continue on their way. Suddenly feeling the mobility coming back into his body, he turned around, watching the two of them disappear into the darkness. In a moment, they were gone- it was difficult to see in the dark after seeing something- someone- so radiant.
After his mind processed what had just happened, he stumbled back slightly, catching the breath that he just now realized he had lost. He had heard tales of "angels", messengers sent by gods to deliver decrees and save the weak from captivity. These "angels" were described as being beautiful beyond comparison, able to captivate and enthrall anyone who sees them and hears them speak.
Did I just meet an angel?
He clumsily turned back around and continued towards the tavern, still lost in his thoughts, when he heard someone call his name. He looked up, and a familiar red-scaled draconian was standing outside the general store. Walking up, Artemis tried to speak, but his mouth just moved up and down a few times.
Grash, oblivious or indifferent regarding Artemis' inarticulacy, gestured for Artemis to follow him into the store.
"It's about time you returned, Artemis. Come on it. We have to get you up to speed. We've been given a quest."