Sunday, May 24, 2015
Last of the King's Men, Chapter 31
It was sunset. A knight and a squire were standing in the clearing, the knight’s face one of disappointment and pity. The squire, sunken to his knees with exhaustion, his face flushed and hair matted with sweat, clutched a sword in one hand. The knight held nothing, having tossed his sword aside long ago.
“Is that the best you can do?”
The squire stood back up, and clumsily swung his sword at the knight, who blocked the flow with his bare hand easily, sidestepping the squire and landing behind him.
The squire spun around to attack once more, but as he did, a carefully-placed boot came in contact with his face. He tried swinging yet again at the knight, but the horse-head pommel of a concealed dagger slammed into his stomach, knocking out what little breath he had.
“I see it was a mistake to bring you along. You couldn’t hurt a flea.”
The squire lifted his face, looking at the knight, the setting sun silhouetting his horned head. The knight turned to walk away, a thick tail flitting behind him.
“I… I hate you…” said the squire, his muscles aching as his numb fingers clutched the grip of the blade. “…You… you DEMON!”
The sword sang as it flew through the air, catching the knight the moment he dropped his guard. It barely had enough force behind it to cut through clothing, let alone cause real damage; the squire’s arm immediately went limp and he collapsed to the ground, panting for his life.
The knight noted the tear in his tunic, and the tiny line of scratched flesh behind it, nodding silently, breathing a sigh of relief. He extended a red hand down towards the squire.
“That’s what I was waiting for, Artemis.”
The two of them returned to the campfire, where the others already waited, making preparations for the next day’s travels. A fire was dancing merrily, the night’s meager meal cooking atop it. The squire collapsed near the fire, his muscles burning.
The knight pulled up a log, sitting down. “Listen to these words, Artemis,” he began, “and listen to them well. You cannot fail. On the battlefield, you must be a force to be reckoned with. You have to make every one of your opponents afraid to turn their back on you. You must have complete mastery of the battlefield. Anything less, and you’ll be dead. Do you understand?”
The squire wiped sweat from his brow, his bones screaming at him, threatening to break from the day’s exertion. He nodded.
The knight pulled out a lute, and began to play a soothing melody.
“Tarrow,” said the squire, not wanting to look him in the eyes.
The melody paused. The squire could feel his gaze.
“I’m really sorry about calling you a ‘demon’. I don’t even know what it means. I was just…” His voice trailed off.
The melody continued.
They all ate their meal, and some turned in for the night. The knight, the squire, and a priest remained awake, lying on the ground near the dying embers, their gaze directed up, at the stars.
After some time of silence, the squire spoke.
“What was life like back home? Where you’re from, I mean?”
Both of his companions thought about it, each waiting for the other to speak.
“Home for me was a place called Gilead,” said the knight after a long pause. “I lived with both of my parents in a house that was too big for any of us to spend time with each other.” He laughed, as did the others. “No, my parents treated me well. They made sure I got the best tutoring available, and I would ride horses along the lush green hills and swim in lakes and read from the best libraries. It was… beautiful, looking back. Some day I hope to call it my home once again.”
The priest, a smile across his red scaly snout, nodded. “My home was within the capital itself. I was born in a hatchery, among many others of my kind. We stayed in the city, with many brothers and sisters and many parents and grandparents. We were never without family, and never without friends. I wished to see the countryside for many years, and once I was able to join the king’s army, I was granted that wish.”
There was another pause, as the squire, the knight, and the priest stared again at the stars.
“What were… girls like,” said the squire, his face blushing slightly, “where you came from?”
Both the knight and the priest laughed, and the knight once again spoke first. “They were as plentiful as they were beautiful, lad. Few of my own kind, of course, but you can’t blame a man for admiring a girl, whether she be human or elf.”
The squire smiled. “What about Sanna? Did you ever… ‘admire’ her?”
More laughs from his companions. “I’d watch your tongue, boy. Don’t ever let Sanna hear you calling her a girl. I’ve known bearded men more feminine than she.”
After they had finished laughing, the squire turned to the priest. “What about you, Grash? Did you ever have any special girls in your life?”
The priest took a deep breath, shaking his head.
“I had a close friend- a girl named Korinne. She and I courted for some time… but in the end it simply was not to be. She and I remain close to this day.” His smile faltered. “Rather… we were friends for many years.”
There was a moment of silence. The priest slowly climbed to his feet, bid his companions goodnight, and retired to his tent.
Another long, deep pause. Somewhere off in the distance, an owl could be heard. The squire spoke.
“Tarrow, what are the stars?”
The knight pondered the question. “Nobody really knows. Some say they are the souls of lost loved ones, looking down from above. Others say they are the gods themselves, or the homes of the gods, or other worlds entirely.”
The squire paused. After a short silence, he asked, “What do you think they are? Do you think they’re… gods or lost souls?”
The knight shrugged. “I don’t know. Personally, I don’t put any faith in gods or souls. They could be far-away balls of fire as far as I’m concerned.”
The squire squinted, looking deeply into the canopy of pinpricks above.
“Do the stars have names?”
The knight nodded. “Some of them do. Others, groups of stars called constellations, are named after whatever they resemble. Some even have long stories and myths about those who they represent.”
The squire tried to sit up, but every joint ached. “They do? Like what?”
The knight pointed up into the darkness, aiming at one lone star in an empty patch of nothingness.
“That star is called ‘the Watcher’. Unlike most stars, that one moves around quite a bit. At different times of the year, it will be in different places- sometimes near other stars, sometimes on its own. It’s named after an old fable about an adventurer who had traveled the world, fought every monster, looted every treasure, and found he no longer got pleasure from rewards and gifts. Instead, he realized that life itself is the grand adventure, and that the pleasure of life comes from the journey, rather than the destination.”
The squire smiled, his eyes fixed on the lone star.
“And so,” continued the knight, “he spends all of his days traveling, on an endless journey for all of eternity.”
“Is that story true?”
The knight shrugged. “I doubt it. It’s likely just a story to encourage everyone to enjoy working instead of waiting for their time to rest. Most of these stories are just invented to explain something people don’t understand, or to encourage the listener to do something they otherwise wouldn’t.”
The squire nodded, still gazing skyward.
“Are there any others,” he began, “that talk about being becoming a knight? Or how to get better at swordfighting?”
The knight smiled. “Well, other there-“ he pointed at a huge mess of stars, spanning most of the sky, “-is a large constellation called ‘the Bloodless Battle of the Thousand Demon Brothers’. It was one of my favorite stories growing up in Gilead.”
The squire tried to see the constellation, but saw nothing but a jumble of dots. “Can you tell it to me?”
The knight thought back to his childhood, reciting from memory.
“Having wandered through a cherry blossom orchard, the swordsman happened upon on thousand demon brothers, who took up their weapons and fought him. Being unruly creatures, they did not attack each other in their turn, but set upon him all at once, blotting out the sun with their wings.
“After seven days and nights, the demons withdrew to look to their wounded, but not one had suffered even a single cut. Likewise, the swordsman remained untouched by demon blades. ‘What manner of battle do you bring us that you spill not a drop of blood?’ asked the demons of the swordsman, as none among them had ever before passed seven days without bloodshed. ‘I am a defender,’ replied the swordsman. ‘With no one to defend, there IS no battle.’
“The demons howled and fell upon one another to sate their bloodlust. At this, the swordsman leapt forwards and struck each demon down as it attacked its own brother, until, as the sun rose, there remained only one. ‘Will you not slay me too?’ asked the demon, to which the swordsman replied, ‘As long as you remain without enemy, my blade cannot harm you.’
“The swordsman and the last demon brother walked together as far as the sea, by which time they had gone without battle longer than anyone else alive. When at last they parted company, the swordsman regretted only that he had not yet been able to lay down his own life for his companion.”
Another long pause. The squire then asked, “Tarrow, what is a demon?”
“A demon,” said the knight after a short sigh, “is said to be the servant of a god- an evil god, in particular. They are supposed to be evil, ugly, conniving creatures who tempt you into committing sins. There are good versions, of course, that work for good deities, called angels. They are supposed to be beautiful beyond comparison, oft resembling perfect maidens with feathered wings and blonde hair.”
“But,” began the squire, “I’ve heard people call you a demon. In that town, a few days ago. A man spit at you and called you a demon, and told you to leave and never return.”
The knight had been expecting this. “Yes, yes. People have been using that name to refer to people of my race for some time. Long ago there was a war between my people and yours- it didn’t end well for either side. Since then, there’s always been a bit of… animosity towards my kind, especially in less… civilized areas. Because of the widespread prejudice against my kind that was so prevalent when most of these legends started, demons in tales of yore often have features that resemble my people- horns, tails, red skin, and so on.”
The squire nodded. He didn’t quite understand, but he didn’t continue the thought.
Another long pause. And then the squire spoke again.
“Tarrow,” he began.
“What happens after you die?”
The knight shifted uneasily. “Well, Artemis… once again, nobody really knows. Most people say that you go on to another stage of life, in another form, to live and serve whatever god you worshipped when you were alive. Others say when you die, your soul goes on to be reborn again in a different body, and it just starts over and over again.”
“But,” continued the squire, “what do YOU think?”
The knight smiled at his pupil’s curiosity. “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t think anything happens. I know it’s not the easiest thing to accept, but in my opinion it’s better than just believing what you want to believe. And telling people they’ll go to a better place when they die makes them a lot more willing to give up their lives for a worthless cause.”
“But what about magic?” The squire turned to look at the knight. “Can’t magic bring people back?”
The knight shook his head. “No. There are limits on what even magic can do.”
There was one more long, long pause.
“Tarrow,” began the squire, gazing again into the infinite sky.
“I don’t ever want to die.”
The knight stared at the stars as well.