Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 28


It was early morning. Artemis Redsleeves had woken up early, before even Sir Tarrow, and had gotten his chores and exercises done before the sun rose in preparation for the day. Artemis couldn’t help but feeling amused by the look on Sir Tarrow’s face when he rose from the barracks, ready to wake up the exhausted boy like he did every morning to give him his duties for the day, only to find Artemis’ bunk empty, and made, and the floors mopped and their weapons sharpened and their armor polished. When Sir Tarrow tried to open his mouth to give him some more duties to perform, Artemis shoved some fresh goods from the bakery in his arms and bolted out the door.

A warm roll in his hands as he pulled on a fresh red-sleeved shirt, Artemis hurried out the door past the new stables, making note of the finished roof, the repaired porch that wrapped around the lodge, and all of the cobblestones paving the path to town. He couldn’t think of anything else that needed to be done. This day was his, and he was going to put it to good use.

And so he found himself at the fence surrounding Persephone’s father’s homestead, before most of the town had arisen, ready to greet the beautiful girl and her father as they left the house for the morning. He could feel tingling in his stomach, his heart was pounding, and his hands were getting sweaty as he waited.

He greeted townsfolk as they passed by, smiling to them each- Sir Tarrow had done an amazing job of getting to know each and every one of them, so as many people as possible saw the Horselords as friendly newcomers, happy to have them protecting their town from whatever might come. Occasionally people Artemis hadn’t even met would come up and thank him for helping to kill the dragon, and rescuing that Sibyla girl from… whoever it was that took her.

Sibyla’s return to Kellonville had strange effects. From what Artemis understood, nobody really knew who she was, and before the Horselords arrived many people didn’t even know she existed- but now that she was back, with her baby son in tow, she was seen all around town, people greeted her, and the mystique around her seemed to have vanished. But at the same time, the mysterious abilities she was purported to have had were gone as well- she did nothing extraordinary anymore, and even her home, which Fru’al had claimed was covered in magical protections to keep it hidden, was visible, plain as day, next to the temple of Azimuth.

And the real question was- how was she still alive? According to the stories, every time the woman known as “Sibyla” reached eighteen years old, she would become pregnant, give birth to a girl, and die in the process. This time, she had a boy, and she was very much still alive. What was the cause of this?

Whatever the case, she didn’t seem to know, nor did anyone else- not even the learned Fru’al. Vrell, wanting to atone for his actions, pledged himself to her as her protector, and after some time Sibyla agreed to let him. So far, every time Artemis had seen her, walking around town with the little one (who, to Artemis’ knowledge, had no name as of yet), Vrell was nearby. Artemis found himself wondering whatever happened with him and Fondin, but it wasn’t his place to inquire.

And then Artemis heard a sound. He turned around, and saw the angelic girl he yearned for, with her rough-skinned father, leaving the homestead. He straightened himself up and stood near their gate, a flower held in one his hands behind his back. He waited, a friendly smile on his face, as the two of them left their small house and walked the long path towards the gate.

When they were about twenty paces away, Artemis heard her father mutter something to her. She stopped where she was, standing in a grey sundress, looking completely radiant under the overcast morning sky. Her father kept walking, his dark eyes fixed directly on Artemis.

“Get away from my property, boy,” he said, his voice gruff, scratchy, and full of spite. “And don’t ever come near my daughter again, do you understand?”

Artemis stared, his mouth slightly agape, one hand clutching the flower now at his side. His mouth moved a bit, trying to find some words, completely flabbergasted at the man’s reaction. He absentmindedly raised the flower to the aged man, somewhere in his mind hoping that it would warm his stony heart, but the man simply grabbed it, crumpled it in his hand and tossed it aside. He gestured for his daughter to follow, and she did so, her perfect face red with embarrassment, her eyes welling up with tears.

The two of them walked away, with her constantly looking back and her father pulling her along, away from the boy in the red sleeves.

Artemis sighed a deep sigh. He wasn’t expecting the man to welcome him with open arms, but what did he do to deserve such malice? He had spent the last month trying to introduce himself, trying to learn about the two of them, and try to make himself presentable for the man’s respect. And when he finally works up the courage to make an offering to the man’s daughter, at their home, the man treats him like this?

Artemis was disappointed, but he wouldn’t give up. If he was the kind of person who gives up so easily, he would have quit being Sir Tarrow’s squire two years ago. True, he tried to do that several times when their training sessions in the wilderness got too difficult, but Sir Tarrow always made sure he knew he was able to get back up and keep fighting. If nothing else, the trystborn’s stubbornness had worn off on him.

Artemis shook his head, and walked back towards the lodge.
-----------------------------------------
The atmosphere in the lodge was so much different now than when they had first arrived. Every day the knights woke up together, trained together, worked on whatever around the house that needed to be worked on, and by nighttime, they would end up sitting around in the common room, drinking and smoking pipes and telling stories and playing music. For the first time since Artemis had joined the Horselords- and, according to their own accounts, for the first time since they were all exiled- the group actually seemed, for lack of a better term, happy.

But, unlike when they first arrived, they hadn’t let up on their guard. Everyone took turns watching guard (though Sanna still took the graveyard shift every night), their training sessions were as brutal and tiring as ever, and every day they sharpened their weapons, polished armor, and repaired their tools of war whenever they needed it.

Also, they had a small windfall of money- after rescuing Sibyla and bringing Vrell to justice, Telstedler had insisted that the knights be rewarded. He gifted them a significant amount of silver coins, which they used to purchase various things they needed. Sir Tarrow purchased lumber from the mill to build a stable for their steeds and repair the porch. Artemis commissioned several more red-sleeved shirts from Talarin Needlemaker, the halfling they had saved from orcs their first day in Kellonville. Sanna had taken care of buying new weapons and armor from Darvan Grimes, the trystborn blacksmith (the only trystborn in town, that Artemis knew of) to replace anything that had been broken or lost over the last two years. They were also able to keep the lodge stocked with food, alcohol, bandages, and anything else they may need. Also, Sir Tarrow had hinted at some sort of a surprise he had arranged for everyone, but he wouldn’t say what.

When Artemis arrived, the rest of the knights were sparring in the yard, running through various battle formations, forming strike teams and practicing combat drills. Even though he had already done some solo training this morning, Artemis changed into his training clothes and joined in.

While they were training, it began to rain. Normally this would have put a damper on their training, but everyone’s spirits were so high that they kept on, even after the rain was pouring so hard that they were slipping around on the wet grass. Artemis tackled Sanna, who fell onto Fru’al, who slid into Grash, who roared with laughter and grabbed Sir Tarrow by the leg, dragging him into a puddle. By the time everyone was soaked and caked with mud, Sir Tarrow declared training to be finished and everyone headed inside to get dried off and cleaned up.

Inside, once everyone had changed into some dry clothes, Sir Tarrow called everyone into the common room. Each of them had their own chair around the large, polished ebony table that sat in the center of the room- they had taken some time to make their own chair unique (by covering it with whatever cushions and fabrics they could find) and, along with Grash’s minor adjustments, it brought the d├ęcor of the room together.

Once everyone was seated, Sir Tarrow passed out cups of warm cider to each of them, holding his up for a toast.

“Seeing as how things have finally quieted down around here,” he began, “I would like to propose a toast, and present some gifts of my own design.”

Everyone raised their cup, Artemis seeing everyone’s genuine smiles.

“To the Horselords,” he continued.

“To the Horselords,” everyone repeated, and took a drink.

Once everyone’s cups were drained and slammed loudly down on the table, Sir Tarrow pulled some objects from under the table, each wrapped up in a bright green cloth. He handed one to Tarrow, one to Fru’al, one to Sanna, and one to Artemis. He kept one, a long tube-shaped bundle, for himself. Artemis’ gift was long and slender, and by the size and shape he thought it might be a sword, though he couldn’t feel the grip or pommel through the wrapping cloth.

Sir Tarrow stared at everyone, who stared back. “Well,” he said, “what are you waiting for?”

Everyone began to unwrap their gifts. Sanna’s was a white quiver, made of a material that shined, Artemis didn’t recognize it. Fru’al opened his, and it was a thick tome, bound in the same white material. Grash’s was a mantle, to go over the shoulders of his armor, once again of the white, smooth leathery material. Unwrapping his own, Artemis realized it wasn’t a sword, but a scabbard. And when he looked closely at the leather, he realized it wasn’t simply leather- it was white dragon scale. It was beautiful- it was polished so that each scale gave off its own radiance, and just touching it made his hands feel cold, like he could feel the breath of that foul beast on him once again.

He looked up to thank Sir Tarrow, but, like the others appeared, he was speechless.

“And one last thing, for all of us,” said Sir Tarrow, unrolling the last bundle.

When Artemis watched him unroll it, he realized what it was- a banner. It was not any banner he had ever seen- he was familiar with drawings of Eodon’s banners from notes Sir Tarrow and Grash showed him during their travels, and this was not one of them. It was divided into three sections, two smaller near the top and one larger at the bottom. Artemis had been taught the significance of heraldry and symbolism the previous year; by looking at the different elements, and keeping in mind that all Eodon heraldry tries to look to the past as well as to the future, he was able to figure it out.

The top-left held two letters, which Artemis recognized as being in an old form of Draconic script- the initials standing for “Lainen’s Eodon”. Artemis had seen Sir Tarrow use the combination of letters in the past when leaving his mark on the walls of towns that refused them safe passage- it was like a subtle way to remind people of who its true ruler is. The two letters were placed on a background of red, representing the blood spilled to make it what it was in its prime, as well as the blood spilled when the false king stole the rule.

The top-right held a symbol of a horse’s head, representing the Horselords themselves- the might and figurehead of the kingdom of Eodon- atop a background of green, reminding of the lush green hills of the country the Horselords once called home, as well as a promise of what it might be once again.

The bottom, however, was Artemis’ favorite part. The banner was dominated below by a wide plane of silver, representing the willingness to accept that they are fallible and always striving to better themselves, and on it was a symbol of a dragon, representing the past and future accomplishments of the exiled Horselords (shown by the dragon that they killed upon their acceptance into Kellonville). Below this, the bottom edge of the banner was gilded by a fringe of golden tassels, symbolizing the ultimate perfection- the golden standard- that the knights were striving towards.

Artemis truly appreciated the main emphasis being on the dragon, since, not being an original member of the Horselords, it reminded him that his main goal, his reason for being here and doing everything he had done, was to carve out his own niche in the world- to define himself by his accomplishments.

Once again, everyone was speechless. As the knights looked at each other and smiled, Artemis could see a tear in everyone’s eye, and felt one in his own as well.

Everyone stood up, and wrapped their arms around Sir Tarrow and each other. None of them knew exactly what their plan was for dealing with Galex and returning to Eodon- but Artemis knew that, for once, they all felt at home once again.
--------------------------------------------
The Horselords remained in the common room until night, once again sharing stories and singing songs and prodding Artemis for details about this girl that he’s been chasing after. His face red and a grin on his face, he decided to step outside for some fresh air. It had stopped raining some time earlier, and the sky had cleared up, revealing a beautiful canopy of stars, so he decided to climb up onto the roof and gaze upward.

Thinking back, he recalled a few nights watching the stars with Sir Tarrow and Grash, back when they first began their travels together, when Artemis had learned the names of the constellations. He stared up at the tiny pinpoints of light for some time, unable to find any of them that he had learned. By the time he sat back up, it sounded like the partying inside the lodge had died down, but Artemis remained on the roof.

He couldn’t get Persephone out of his head. He wanted so bad to talk to her, to explain to her father that he didn’t mean any harm. But of course, Artemis figured if he had a daughter, especially one as beautiful and precious as she was, he would do everything in his power to protect her. He’d provide for her, and buy her every gift she wanted, and if some hooligan from out of town came he’d chase him away so fast-

Damn, Artemis though. I’m the hooligan, aren’t I?

Sighing loudly, he stared across town, tracing through the air with a finger until he located the house that she lived in, all the way on the other side of town. He wondered if maybe she was sitting at her window, looking out into the night sky, wondering about him. Maybe she was tracing her finger across the window looking for where he lived.

He shook his head. It was doubtful. Her father probably has all of the windows covered up or something.

Then, Artemis had an idea: A letter! He would write her a letter. Maybe he would deliver it, maybe not. If he didn’t, then at least it would help him put his feelings into words so that whenever he did get to talk to her, or to her father at least, he could explain what it was that made him want to be with her so badly.

He climbed back down, and crept inside the lodge, not wanting anyone to know what he was doing, lest he get grilled further on his love life (or lack thereof).

He slowly slid his feet over the floor towards their workshop, here he knew there was parchment and ink in with their supplies. He had almost reached the shelf when-

“If you’re trying to be sneaky,” said an edhel voice, “you’re not doing a very good job.”

Artemis froze, and turned back, Sanna stood, a smirk on her usually-stony face, a drink in her hand.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “Tarrow’s already gone to bed. I won’t tell him you’re going to write a letter.”

She turned around and walked away, still smirking. Artemis shook his head with a smile, grabbed what he needed, and headed back outside. He climbed onto the roof once again, and- noticing that he could hear Fru’al and Grash talking on the porch below him- he quietly began to scratch out his first ever love letter.

Dear Persephone,

Hi. My name is Artemis Redsleeves. I don’t know if you know anything about me, but I’m one of the knights that came last month and killed that dragon in town. Well, I mean, I’m not really a knight- not yet- but I will be some day. I’ve always wanted to be a knight, ever since I was living as a servant for these people far away. Then I met Sir Tarrow- he’s sort of our leader- and he asked if I wanted to be his squire.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that… I think you’re beautiful. Ever since the first time I saw you I just can’t stop thinking about you. But I don’t just think you’re beautiful- I have this feeling like you’re a wonderful person and I just want to meet you, to get to know you, and to learn everything there is to know about you. I’ve never met anyone like you in my entire life, and I really hope that some day your dad will let me talk to you.

I don’t know why your dad seems to hate me so much. I really don’t. I don’t know what I did to make him feel that way- if I did, then I would apologize, and try to make up for it. I don’t know how you feel about him, or the way he keeps you hidden all the time, but I hope you don’t hate him for it. I know, deep down, that he’s trying to do what’s best for you. I’m sure he has his reasons for everything he does, so try to just give him some time. I guess I’ll have to do the same.

Anyway, I just really want to meet you. If nothing else, I wanted to say hello. I hope some day I can make you smile.

-Artemis Redsleeves

After writing the letter, he folded it up and held it close. He couldn’t ever really give it to her… could he? If he did, how would he even get it to her? Slide it under her door and hope that she finds it before her father does? He could go up to her house- right now, even- and knock on her window, but which one was hers? What if he knocked on her father’s window by mistake?

While his mind was trying to work out different ways to deliver this letter to her, he realized that he was already climbing down the ladder. And then that he was walking along the winding path that went past the mill, across the stream, and down back through the town towards her home.

Could he really do this? Was he really going to?

He had gotten a short distance past the Rusted Drake when he heard some splashing. He looked out into the stream that branched off the Kellon river and cut through town. It looked like someone was swimming in the stream- at this hour?

He paused mid-stride, squinting in the darkness. Was that… two people swimming? No, there were more of them. And they weren’t… they weren’t swimming, so what were they doing?

He started to walk towards the water, and he realized- they were walking out of the stream. Walking. As if they had just been walking through really thick air. Several of these people, maybe a dozen, were stepping out of the stream and advancing toward Artemis, towards the rest of the town. But they didn’t look like ordinary people. They were covered in mud and seaweed, but their bodies looked gaunt, emaciated, almost… like they were made of bones.

Except they were made of bones, with bits of flesh clinging in various places, reeking of the stench of the dead. Artemis’ jaw dropped in an expression of horror.

No, he thought. It isn’t possible, is it?


Somehow, the dead had risen and were advancing on Kellonville.

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