Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 36

He opened his eyes for the first time as his body floated along in the river. His body did not yet need breath, so he took the moments to gather his consciousness.

His mind was a jumble of memories, from the past and from futures not yet realized. He remembered tending the orange orchard with Magdalene, he remembered climbing the infinite staircase by himself, and he got an image of stepping into a glowing crystal, followed by silence.

As always, it was difficult to place the memories. It was like looking at the piece of a thousand puzzles, all of which were missing vital pieces, none of which could make sense without seeing them all completed. Only when each puzzle was completed would it make a piece of the final puzzle- the riddle of life, the universe, and everything.

He could feel the life flowing through his body, and he could feel his chest begin to tighten. He had reached his destination- or, rather, he had reached the next stop on his never-ending journey.

Floating to the top of the water, his face was met by the cold morning air, and as he opened his mouth for the first time, he felt the sensation of the frigid air filling his lungs. A breeze caressed his bare, wet body, and he was amused by the freezing sensation. His body instinctively reacted to the cold, his arms wrapping around his torso, his teeth beginning to chatter against themselves. It was not an unfamiliar sensation, and although he could refer to it as “pain”, he knew that in time his body would grow used to the cold. It always took some time to adjust.

His bare feet moved slowly, sluggishly across the stony river’s edge, his slender form shivering involuntarily with each step. He was surprised at the apparent weakness of this form; his previous one was much more physically capable, if he recalled correctly. But no matter. He would learn this body’s strengths with time.

Across the horizon, he could see the sun’s rays rising to meet him. It wouldn’t be so cold for much longer.
He walked across the ground, following the past of the river, taking note of the plants and wildlife of the region. It looked familiar enough- without much difficulty he was able to find sustenance for this vessel. With night came the cold once more- feeling the fatigue of his limited form, he sought shelter in a copse of fallen trees. It was dark; the only light came from the dim symbols, pure emotions expressed through a language as old as time, floating slowly around his head. Still feeling the chill, he gathered some sticks, setting them in a small pile before him.

He held his blue hands out over the twigs, feeling a power running through him- not quite as natural as breathing, but as easily accomplished as trying not to breathe- and suddenly, the sticks beneath his hands were burning merrily, illuminating his tiny shelter and providing his young body much-needed warmth. He puzzled momentarily at his ability to do so- he would need to learn what else this body was capable of.

The following morning, he arose once again, his bare body still feeling the chill of the outdoors. He continued to follow the river until, finally, as this day neared its end, he could smoke from the fires of a settlement on the horizon. He knew there would be one eventually- civilization always cradles around water- and it was a welcome sight to his silver eyes.

As he neared the settlement, he came to a small building, a home with a thatched roof, built near to the edge of the river. Near the building, he saw a woman- a human, his past reminded him- near the water, a basket of linens at her side. She was dutifully scrubbing them, completely oblivious to him until his bare feet had brought him barely an arm’s reach away.

He paused in his tracks, and, extending a hand to the still-oblivious woman, he spoke- as far as he could recall- a greeting in the common tongue. Above his head, various symbols of greeting twinkled in the chill air.

The woman spun around, froze for a moment, her bulging eyes taking in his form, until she led out a terrified scream, dropped her belongings into the river, and scrambled away, running into her home, her hands flailing and her voice ringing across the cool autumn air. He wondered for a moment whether his greetings were out of date, or perhaps he remembered wrong.

Shortly after, another human, this one a burly male, came out from the home, holding a thick cudgel in his hands. The man approached him, calling out warnings, challenging him to back away and leave the property.

Clearly seeing the misunderstanding, he gestured to the man, apologizing for the confusion and asking forgiveness for approaching his property without invitation. The words were said eloquently, and correctly, and the sigils floating in the air triggered feelings of calm and reassurance. The man, now realizing the lack of ill intent, set down the cudgel and offered his own apologies. The man, looking up and down at the stranger, kindly offered him some cloths to cover himself up.

Ah, yes. He had forgotten about that. Most races are frightened by nudity in all forms. He took the man’s offer thankfully. If nothing else, the cloths would help keep him warm in the times to come.

Fastening a sheet around his waist and over his shoulder, he thanked the man and his still-apprehensive wife and bid them both farewell, vowing to repay the favor in kind some day. For the time being, he had to be on his way. His purpose was up ahead.
The sun was just making its way over the horizon when he finally reached the town. He passed a few more homes on the way, this time making sure not to make greetings unless the inhabitants extended hospitalities first- which none of them did. It did not bother him, of course, as he understood the ways of most beings, especially humans.

He entered the town proper, noting its level of technological advancement. His silver eyes scanned around, watching the footprints in the dirt, noting how people were avoiding his company and pointing at the glowing images that danced smoothly in the air above his head.

Noting the local tavern, and the general store, he assumed he had reached the town square. He closed his eyes, and his symbols went dim, as he felt back into the recesses of his memory. Memory was an interesting thing for him- he had so many, that spanned over all of eternity, yet not all of them were in the same order that most mortals see them. Perhaps he may be remembering a day from a thousand years ago as if it were yesterday, or perhaps he might be remembering a conversation he will have tomorrow. It was his task to keep them ordered and ensure they are used in their proper place.

And then, he saw it- in his memory- a house on top of a hill. Opening his eyes, his sigils began to glow once more and he put one bare foot in front of the other, following the path he knew he was going to take.

He crossed a bridge that spanned a small stream, and followed a path that followed that stream instead of the river. He passed a large wooden building, the loud noise of its industry creating lumber for the local townspeople. The path followed past a pond, where a few adolescent boys sat, sullen, tossing rocks into the water and talking among themselves.

He stepped up the hill he saw in his mind’s eye. At the top was a home- his home, he knew it would become- and he had reached where he needed to be. Behind the home was a stable, and in it were, he knew, four of the world’s strongest and smartest horses. He welcomed the sight, and with a friendly greeting from his symbols, the nearest of them bowed its head to him. He petted the gelding warmly, and with the same symbols bid it farewell for now.

He crossed around to the front of the building. A long wooden porch wrapped around it, and sitting on a wooden bench was an old man that he immediately recognized. As he approached the old man, his bare feet made the tiniest creaks on the wooden surface. He wished not to startle the aged wizard, as he had done with the woman by the river.

Tapping the old man gently on the shoulder, he spoke.

“Fru’al,” he said, his symbols going dim. He considered making them disappear but decided against it.

The old man stirred. From beneath his robes fell an empty bottle. He nudged the man again, a bit more forcefully this time.

“Fru’al,” he repeated, giving the mage’s shoulder one more firm shake.

The Marquis raised his head and opened his eyes, staring for a moment blankly through him as he awoke. Once the realization hit him, he jumped to his feet and grabbed at an ornate staff leaning nearby.

“What- who are- state your business!”

He simply stared at the old man, expressionless. His sigils were still visible, but transparent. His plain silver eyes did not move. The mage pointed the staff, which bore a carving of a raven- a symbol of the Ebony Goddess- at him, and the two stood, motionless, until it was clear he was not going to attack. Once the old man realized this, he relaxed his stance.

“Fru’al,” he said to the wizard, nodding. “I believe it has been a long time.”

Fru’al stared at him, his head cocked slowly. “Do I… know you?”

Ah, of course. Even if this old man was familiar with his immortal cycle of death and rebirth, he did not know this of his old companion.

“In a way, yes. My name…” He closed his eyes, feeling his body’s name as if it were not a decision, but a fact. “…Is Jabean. You knew me in a previous form. Long ago, I was known by another name, and another before that. And I will be known by other names in the future. Once, you and I were close companions under the leadership of our great king, Lainen Tarithal.”

Fru’al’s eyes opened wide, and he almost dropped his staff. Jabean could recognize the expressions crossing this man’s face- fear, and distrust, and apprehension, which melted away to become acceptance, and finally relief- the kind of relief felt by a man dying of thirst in the desert who, on the cusp of giving up hope, happens upon an oasis.

“But…” he stammered. “But… you… who-“

“You knew me,” interrupted Jabean, “as the sage Anar. I have returned to aid you in your quest.”

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