Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 25

Artemis Redsleeves sat atop his horse, exhausted after two active days without sleep, riding back to Kellonville. After Sanna returned with Sibyla’s baby in tow, Sir Tarrow insisted that Vrell be put in shackles- if only for appearances. There was a lot that needed to be cleared up, and Sir Tarrow gave the draconian his word- after a stern glance at Kefir, who had not stopped sobbing and wringing his bleeding hands- that no harm would come to him as long as he cooperated.

And so they rounded up their steeds. Fru’al insisted that he be allowed to give Kefir’s family a proper burial, and Grash volunteered to help. The rest of the Horselords would then travel back to Kellonville, with Vrell, Kefir, and Sibyla and her child, and return once Vrell was put somewhere secure and Sibyla and her child could be kept safe.

They reached Kellonville with no difficulty, and it was still daytime when they reached the Rusted Drake. Dismounting, Artemis and Sir Tarrow escorted the draconian upstairs. As Kellonville lacked a jail, one of the unused rooms- minus any accoutrements, of course- was designated as the jail whenever need arose- which wasn’t often, Artemis assumed. They locked Vrell inside, and returned later that night when everyone could be present.

When they finally got everyone together, it was pitch black outside. Artemis went with Sir Tarrow to make sure that Sibyla was safely held with her baby in the infirmary at the temple of Azimuth, and although he seemed to cling to the Horselords wherever they went, Sir Tarrow insisted that Kefir stay at the temple as well- though he gave Jael specific instructions to keep an eye on him.

Several chairs were brought into the barren room that acted as Vrell’s cell, and Artemis, Grash, Sir Tarrow, Fru’al, Sanna, and Telstedler sat around him, his arms and legs still shackled. After a short while, he spoke.

“I suppose I should explain myself. My name is Vrell. I’ve lived here in Kellonville my entire life, as you may know. I… have never been the most… upstanding citizen, I know- I ran away from here a few weeks ago. That’s when I met Trask.”

All of the Horselords looked at each other. Artemis nodded, shifting uncomfortably, feeling the pain of every bruise from that fight.

“Trask said he was the leader of a draconian gang called the Scaled Fist,” continued Vrell. “He said they traveled across the countryside, looting caravans and stuff like that. He promised me riches and glory, and said that all of his men were like me- shunned by the rest of their kin. I didn’t have anything keeping me here, so I left.”

“Except Fondin Dermar,” said Sir Tarrow, his face expressionless.

Vrell blanched, and shook his head. “Look,” he said. “She had nothing to do with any of this. I just… like her, that’s all.”

“Anyway, continue,” said Telstedler, nodding.

“So… like I said, I joined the Scaled Fist. There really wasn’t anything to do for the first few weeks, though- we just sat around, played games, and talked about things. But then, last week, Trask came to me- he said I needed to prove myself.”

Artemis saw the rest of the knights nod, knowing where this was going.

“He told me that a man known as ‘the Dark One’ needed a girl from Kellonville. And he said that since I was from Kellonville, I should be the one to do it. He wouldn’t tell me anything else about it- why we needed her, what we were going to do with her, or who this ‘Dark One’ was. But I really needed to be a part of the group, so… I did it.

“I didn’t get it. Even though I had lived here for years, I didn’t know this Sibyla person he talked about, and it wasn’t until I was standing right in front of her home that I even realized it was there. When I told him I was worried about getting caught, Trask told me that the town would be empty that day- I didn’t understand how that was possible, but he just told me ‘the Dark One has it under control.’ And sure enough, everyone was gone.

“So I entered Sibyla’s house. I… I never meant to hurt her. I really didn’t. I just thought that I could grab her, we’d hold her for ransom or something, and then we’d let her go. Then I got in there, and she screamed. I panicked. I… I tried to knock her out, and she… I don’t even know how to describe it. She… exploded.”

Telstedler stared at him incredulously. “I’m sorry… she exploded?”

Vrell shrugged. “I don’t know. She let out this scream, and there was a flash of light, and I was thrown against the wall. I blacked out. It couldn’t have been for long, because she was still there when I came to. She tried to run, and I grabbed her again. She tried to scratch at me, and she managed to get my arm pretty good. But whatever the reason, she didn’t… ‘explode’ again. I dragged her, kicking and screaming, outside. Trask and the rest of the Scaled Fist were waiting for me just outside town.”

“Tell us what happened then,” Fru’al asked.

“Well, the thing is… I realized after getting her out of Kellonville that she was pregnant. Trask looked as surprised as I was, since he hadn’t told me anything about a pregnant woman. I think the Dark One probably didn’t tell him that either. None of us knew what to do, since we were told to keep her safe, but we didn’t know when she was going to give birth, and we didn’t know what that would mean for her health.

“So, Trask had us take her to that hideout that you all found. I guess he tried to talk to the Dark One about it, but all I know is that the Dark One sent a bunch of orcs to add to our forces. He must have known that you were coming for us. But when some of the orcs came near Sibyla, she did it again. I mean, she… exploded. When they got close, she screamed, and in a flash of light, all of them were turned to dust.”

Artemis heard Fru’al mutter to himself, “Interesting…”

“When you all arrived, I… I knew I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. I never wanted anyone to get hurt, especially not a woman and child. I understand if my crimes were unforgivable, but… if it were possible, I’d like to repay my debt to the girl. To Sibyla. And her son, too. But I guess that’s up to you.”

The knights looked at each other, and Telstedler was the first to speak.

“We will discuss this,” he said. “When we decide what to do, you will be informed. For the time being, you will remain here.”

They stood, gathered the chairs and reconvened in Telstedler’s office. After a short discussion, it was decided to let Sibyla decide- in her own time. For the night, Artemis was relieved to be able to go back to the lodge and sleep.

But of course, Sir Tarrow woke him up at dawn. Artemis begged for more time to sleep, which resulted in Sir Tarrow walking out of the room, and returning with a bucket of freezing water splashed directly in Artemis’ face. He scrambled out of bed, fully awake, and cursed at his superior under his breath as he got ready for the day.

The day began with plenty of sparring, followed by daily chores (Sir Tarrow thought it a good idea for the Horselords to build their own stables, attached to the lodge, so they wouldn’t need to keep taking up the town stablemaster’s time and space). By the afternoon, Artemis was sweaty, tired, and hungry.

He walked up to the Rusted Drake, following his nose and his empty stomach more than his eyes. He walked inside, ordered some of the day’s special (spiced beef- not the braised eel he and his companions had come to enjoy so much) and a jug of cold water. He sat by himself, enjoying the food and drink- but even moreso, just the freedom to do what he wanted. Sir Tarrow had left him to his chores, and since he wasn’t around to give Artemis any more, that meant he could enjoy himself for the rest of the day.

Between plates of spiced beef, Artemis noticed Fru’al was sitting in the corner with a skinny, bespectacled man holding a stack of books. The two seemed engaged in conversation, so Artemis let them be. After finishing his meal, he dropped some coppers onto the bar and walked out, waving to Primm as he went.

The sun was starting to set already, Artemis thought. Where did the day go?

The town square was still full of people milling about, socializing, and carrying supplies to and fro. Artemis was about to turn around and head back to the lodge, maybe to catch an early night, when someone caught his eye.

Across the square, leaving the general store, was that girl- the beautiful one, with golden hair and the purest blue eyes, carrying a sack at her side. Her eyes met his- her eyes, deep enough for a person to fall into and never escape, twinkling like the stars seen from a mountaintop- and Artemis felt like his heart might beat out of his chest. Somehow his feet got the message to start walking forward- he was going to do it. He was going to talk to her. He was-

“Hello, Artemis!”

He almost jumped, startled, as handyman Ben Arons walked up to him, his smile beaming in the light of the setting sun. “I heard about everything that happened yesterday. I guess it goes without saying, but I just wanted to say thank you for everything you guys have done. It really means a lot to the town- to me, especially.”

Artemis tried to lean to one side and the other quickly, to catch another glimpse of the angelic maiden that had just met his gaze. But every time he moved, Ben compensated, inadvertently blocking his view at each opportunity.

“Because, I mean,” he continued, “I really feel like this is my fault. If I hadn’t led the town on that flight of fancy, then maybe someone would have seen that Sibyla woman, and I just really feel like it’s-“

But Artemis wasn’t listening. He was trying to squeeze his way past the stout man, without being too disrespectful. He tried nodding along, putting his hand on Ben’s shoulder to nudge him out of the way, but each time Artemis moved, Ben moved as well, awkwardly mirroring his movements, undoubtedly out of persistant ignorance.

“-I just really wish I could do more to help, is all I’m trying to say,” finished the carpenter, his face and bald spot red and sweaty.

Artemis took a brief moment and looked at the man. “Trust me, Ben. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say you’ve done us more help than you know. We really appreciate it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get over there.” And with that, Artemis quickly darted around Ben Arons and across the square.

But she was gone. He spun around, looking down each street leading to and from the center of town, but he couldn’t see her anywhere. He sighed, watched Ben try to wave hello to everyone passing by (regardless of whether they looked at him in disgust) and head into the Rusted Drake.

Dejected, Artemis gave up looking, and walked over to the dock, sitting down on the edge. He pulled his boots off and dangled his sweaty feet into the cool water. It felt amazing- it almost took away the frustration of missing a chance to talk to that girl again.

He wondered to himself whether this was what normal life was like. Work, relaxing while enjoying the simple pleasures whenever you can get them, more work, chasing after girls? Artemis had never chased after a girl before- literally or figuratively. Was it something he wanted? All he could think of right now was how much he wanted to find her. But if he did, what then? Talk about… what, exactly? He could tell stories about the adventures he’d had. But would that make her happy? He could talk about how miserable his life used to be, but who wants to listen to that? Or should he talk about her? Like… how she looks? He didn’t really know anything else about her. He didn’t even know her name, for crying out loud. What else do people talk about?

And then he got scared. What if she didn’t like him? What if… well, he didn’t really know how girls’ minds worked, so he didn’t know what factors make someone like someone else. He began to hate the fact that he had spent all of his life doing things that nobody else does, because he had missed out on everything- school, girls, friends. Did he even have friends? Were the rest of the Horselords his friends, or just people that he spent his life traveling and fighting with?

As Artemis sat there on the dock musing to himself, he glanced aside and almost jumped out of his skin. Kefir was standing right beside him, looking out into the water, his eyes still red from crying. When he realized Artemis had noticed him, he asked, “Is it okay if I sit here too?”

Artemis, at first startled by Kefir’s sudden appearance, took a deep breath and nodded. The boy wordlessly sat down on the side of the dock an arm’s reach away. He had already taken off his shoes, but his feet weren’t quite long enough to reach the water.

“So,” spoke Artemis, feeling a bit of tension towards the boy beside him. “How do you like Kellonville?”

Kefir simply shrugged, and stared out into the rushing river.

Artemis nodded. He wasn’t sure how to talk to this kid- after all, he had some sort of dangerous power that none of them knew of. Maybe Fru’al knew something about it- he knew a lot more about magic than anyone else- but Artemis certainly didn’t understand it, and to be honest, it scared him.

But that was just it- fear. Artemis could tell that Kefir was just a terrified child who had lost his entire family. All of them knew how that felt- each in different ways. The other Horselords all had their own stories of loss, but Artemis knew what it was like to find the only people you ever knew burnt to a cinder, killed by some unknown enemy. The difference, of course, was that the Keverses were ugly, nasty people, and Kefir’s family were- hopefully- better than that. So even if Artemis knew what it was like to be terrified and lose everyone near you, Kefir’s experience was worse.

And then it turned out that he had some sort of terrifying power- but did that really change anything? Kefir used it to kill someone that killed his family. Was that so bad? Artemis wondered, would he have done anything different?

“Tell me about yourself,” said Kefir, his voice emotionless. “Tell me about your family. The rest of the knights… Horselords.”

Artemis looked at him, and shrugged. “There really isn’t much to my family. My parents died when I was really young, and I lived with these… other people… who didn’t treat me very well. One day when I was out, orcs came through and killed them all.”

He neglected to mention that they had been burned alive, for fear it might upset Kefir.

“Then I was out on my own for a while,” he continued. “I ran into Sir Tarrow, and Grash, and Fru’al, and Sanna in the forest- they were being attacked by some bad people. I helped- well, I tried to help, really,” he said with a chuckle, “but looking back, I think I did more harm than good. Sir Tarrow saw some potential in me. He said if I wanted to, I could be his squire.”

Kefir nodded, still without expression on his face. Artemis stared at him for a moment. For an instant, the idea went through his head of, once he became a knight, making Kefir his squire. And like that, the thought passed.

“Anyway,” he went on, “there were a lot more of them back then. The Horselords, I mean. There were these two, Bealen and Philip- Bealen was always really serious, and he was a Paladin, a holy knight, like Grash, but Grash is a lot more experience than he was. Philip was really good at building things, and taking them apart, and picking locks, and pockets, and he was even better at hiding in the shadows than Sanna.” Artemis began to laugh. “Man, there was one time, he stole Bealen’s holy symbol and replaced it with a symbol of a woman without any-“

He stopped himself. He didn’t know why, but he did.

“-Anyway,” he said, clearing his throat. “The two of them got along really well. I always got the impression they were related, like cousins or something, but I never asked. I always thought it was so strange that they seemed so different, yet got along so well. When Bealen got killed, well… Philip was never the same. Whatever the case, he died not too long after. We… fought a lot of monsters, but the worst ones were the humans. We were looking for a home, like you. It took us a long time. A long, long time. Not everyone we met was willing to take us in.”

Kefir sat, listening, his eyes glistening. The sun had almost reached the trees across the river by now.

“And there was this other Horselord, Meredith. She was always really nice to me. She’d make sure I was fed, she’d try to keep Sir Tarrow from working me too hard- a lot of good that did, mind you- and she’d always play music to try and help us all wind down at the end of a day. Sir Tarrow played music too, but with her, it felt different. It made me feel like… like I was at home.” Artemis paused, recalling sad memories. “I had never really felt like I had a home before that. And since she died, it just never really has been the same.”

The two boys sat on the dock, the warm breeze blowing across their faces and the only sound that of the waves lapping up against the dock.

“I should go,” said Kefir, standing up. Before Artemis could say goodbye, he turned and walked away.

Artemis was surprised by the abruptness of his exit, but shrugged. The kid was upset, after all. He started to get up and head home himself, when he heard another voice.

“Hey, Artemis!”

He turned around, and saw Falric, the young man he had met just two days previous, among other boys at the fishing pond. He was wearing dirty work clothes, his shoes in his hand, a chicken leg in his hand.

“Hey, Falric,” Artemis replied, sitting back down. “How have you been?”

Falric plopped down onto the dock, taking a huge bite out of his food. “I’ve been pretty good, I suppose. But how about you? I heard you guys bullied some girl yesterday. Fontine or something. And then you guys beat up and brought back a draconian in shackles? What was that about?”

Artemis nodded, not wanting to debate the specifics of the story. “It’s a long story.”

“Oh well,” said Falric, still chewing. “Who was that kid just now? I haven’t seen him before.”

Artemis looked back. He didn’t see Kefir anywhere- he must have hurried, wherever he was going.

“That was Kefir. He’s… a kid we picked up. He’s had a rough couple days.”

Falric shrugged. “I just got done with my chores, and the day’s already over. But at least my parents let me eat down here instead of at home.”

“Hey, Falric,” Artemis started, not really paying attention. “Do you remember the other day, when we went over to those treehouses?”

Falric gulped his food loudly, his eyes wide. “Do I ever! You let way too early, man. We never get to party with the girls like that. You could have gotten in on it. I swear, like, all of the girls were asking about you. Luckily for them, I’m your close friend, right?”

Artemis nodded, thinking more about what he was about to say. “Well, see, I met a girl that night. I wanted to ask you about her.”

“Oh, I’ll bet it was Elisabeth,” he said, grinning. “She was the black-haired one, with the white blouse-“

Artemis shook his head. “No, no. She was blonde-“

“Oh, was it Tabitha? I was surprised to see her there too, she doesn’t usually come out to the treehouses-“

“No,” Artemis cut him off again. “I didn’t meet her at the treehouses. I met her here, actually-“ he pointed over towards the Rusted Drake. “I was walking back, and I ran into her. She was… she was beautiful. Her hair looked like it was made of pure gold, her eyes were so perfectly blue the river just looks pale in comparison. Her lips were so red, her skin was… it was just perfect. I’ve never seen anyone like her in my entire life. I can barely stop thinking about her ever since.”

Falric had stopped chewing, and was staring at Artemis attentively during his description. Afterwards, he spit out his food, and squinted.

“Did she… have an old guy following behind her, who looked like he’d fight off anyone who came near her?”

Artemis shrugged. “I guess so. The first time I saw her, this guy- he looked like he’d spent all day, all week even, working in the sun- grabbed her shoulder and just pushed past me.”

Falric shook his head. “Yeah, I know who you’re talking about. And trust me, don’t bother. It’s just not worth it.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean,” continued Falric, “is that her father watches her like a hawk. He doesn’t let any boys come near her, no matter what. All of us guys have seen her around. Sorry, but we’ve all thought about her at some point or another. But everyone who’s even tried to talk to her has gotten chased off by her dad.”

Artemis hung his head. Just his luck- the girl of his dreams has a dad that acts like her jailer, fighting off anyone who wants to be her friend. Or… more. What was he supposed to do? Hope that somehow he could win her dad over? Or somehow win her over and get her to stand up to her father? Artemis didn’t know how to do either of those things.

Falric put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, man. It’s happened to the best of us. Forget about her. Tell you what- I’ll try to talk to this other girl, Kathleen, for you. I think you just might be her type-“

Artemis shook his head. He couldn’t just forget about her. That face was going to be haunting him wherever he went now. Asking about her had only made it worse. If only…

“Tell me,” he said, looking Falric in the eye. “Just tell me her name, at least.”

Falric raised an eyebrow, realizing his friend was hopelessly lost in the whirlpool of that girl’s eyes.

“It’s Persephone. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

But Artemis had stopped listening. He got up, waved goodbye, grabbed his boots and walked back to the lodge.

Persephone, he thought. Her name is Persephone.

What a beautiful name.

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