Sunday, May 24, 2015
Last of the King's Men, Chapter 5
Sir Tarrow Sharn sat before the fire, the familiar constellations watching overhead. It had been a long and difficult day- harrowing, even- and he and his companions were resting for the night. Hours had been spent finding a campsite far enough from the path, behind enough natural brush, in just the right place for them to be able to feel safe. They had bandaged wounds, prepared what food they could, and cared for the… "visitor" until long past nightfall and now most of them had drifted off to sleep. If any others were still awake, they didn't betray this by making noise, but Tarrow wasn't thinking about the others. His fingers gently danced along the strings of his lute, and as his eyes remained fixed on the flames before him the melody wafted across the campsite, seducing his ears and encouraging his trance.
At times in his life, when surrounded by friends with his instrument in hand, he'd regale them with a tale or a song, as much to entertain and educate as to impress and inspire. But a specific tale was on his mind tonight, and his allies at rest around him had heard this tale many times. The perfect chords drew images in his head of times long past, and as his thoughts began the story he let out a long sigh, and with it he exhaled the grief and pain of a lifetime.
There was once a young trystborn named Tarrow Sharn. Born the only child to a family of minor nobility, he rarely wanted for much- he had a strong father, a caring mother. The county of Gilead was their home, with its lush, rolling hills and acres of farmland and verdant woods across crystal-clear lakes. His childhood was everything someone could have hoped for- he was riding horses as soon as he could fit in the saddle, his family would vacation in interesting locales all across Eodon, and he received training in the martial arts as well as the fine arts of music. He loved school more than anyone he knew- he loved learning. Once he reached adolescence, it was not uncommon to see him seated beneath an old oak tree between lessons with a stack of books at his side, plumbing the depths of history and fantasy alike even as his friends were racing off to climb trees or throw stones into water. As he grew more experienced in the arts of war, dreaming of someday becoming a knight among the fabled Horselords of Eodon, he found himself more interested in the theory and strategy behind combat than in combat itself, and it was this thirst that drove him to develop his skill- mentally and physically- further.
Tarrow Sharn enlisted in the local militia as soon as he was of age. His knowledge and skill- both on and off the battlefield- got him attention, but his wit and natural charm is what kept everyone captivated. On many occasions he found himself telling stories to a crowd of listeners in a local tavern, debating some topic of import to a local expert, or flirting with young girls who had seen him lead a group of soldiers or witnessed one of his many dramatic shows of linguistics. Trystborn were fairly rare in Gilead- his family was one of the few in the county, and certainly the most well-known- but it seemed girls of all races were attracted to his strong presence despite (or in addition to) his race's devilish features. If ever asked his "secret", Tarrow would simply wink and say, "Ladies love the tail."
The soft melody being played across the campfire began picking up speed, painting images in the ear of happier times and easier days. Sir Tarrow Sharn remembered the days of his youth, living amongst his people in Gilead. Such a time seemed like an eternity ago- or perhaps the life of someone else, witnessed from outside, or learned through a story or jaunty epic.
It was the talk of the town the day the Horselords came to Gilead. The militia gathered to pay them due honor, standing in rank and file as they passed on through, saluting them on the way to their duty. Even if they only rode by for a moment, Tarrow had never been as excited before that moment. Their mighty steeds, exactly as grand and majestic as in the stories he had read as a child, groomed perfectly and Lainened in polished barding- stronger and hardier than four horses combined from any other nation, or so the stories told. And atop the stallions rode a squad of half a dozen knights, men and women with shining breastplates bearing the standards of the stalwart nation of Eodon. People from all over had gathered along the road simply to watch them ride by, and it was all anyone could talk about for days.
Tarrow and a few of the other militia volunteers were running through drills in the training yard. They had seen little action themselves, with the nation at peace since the Great Orc War so many years previous, but all of them- Tarrow especially- dreamed something more, of being recruited into the national army, proving themselves in battle, and being knighted and included among the ranks of the Horselords themselves. So they ran drills, they sparred, they practiced whenever they had time.
When it happened, Tarrow was practicing with his throwing axes- having never been fond of using a bow- and directing the five others in their stances. As he retrieved his axes from the target board, he heard a noise: a yell, or perhaps a scream, from far off in the hills. He whistled to signal the others and they stopped their drills to listen- and they saw a man, perhaps a boy even, running from the east, screaming.
They hurried to meet the boy, whose face was white and his torn clothing covered in blood. He was hysterical, and barely able to speak, but Tarrow gathered that his family- a merchant caravan that they had seen coming through town occasionally- had been attacked by bandits, or cannibals, or something. The boy had managed to escape, in the hopes of finding help. The soldiers all looked at each other, unsure of what to do. They could each tell they were all terrified. They had trained and practiced, but had they actually prepared themselves for whatever had to be done? But then a thought shook all of the fear and uncertainty out of Tarrow's inexperienced mind: Help, he realized, is us.
He immediately took charge. The orders came from his mouth before he knew what he was doing. He commanded the youngest of the group to escort the boy back to town and notify anyone he could. The men hurried to gather their gear, suiting up only in what armor and equipment would provide the most protection while wasting the least amount of time. Already in his armor, Tarrow grabbed his twin swords, a gift from his father upon his entry into the militia, and the men were off to do their duty as soldiers of Eodon.
They found the remains of the caravan, and followed the trail of blood and struggle back to the bandits' hideout. Whoever did this had already killed several of the merchants, their bodies- or parts of them- scattered about outside the filthy hovel. From the sound of screams inside, whoever was still alive was likely being raped or beaten, or both. The sight of the bloodshed, the sounds of the screams, the smells of carnage and the heat of rage tried to overwhelm Tarrow's senses, but as he forced it all out of his mind, the years of studying theory and technique began to click within the gears of his mind. He observed the three entry points, one central and two on either side, devising a plan in his mind of how to funnel the bandits into the center and block the other two. He was already picturing them rushing out, weapons drawn and thirsty for battle. He envisioned his men flanking them, disarming them, locking them into the most disadvantageous positions, and taking control of the battle from the very beginning.
But his rigid plan was not enough. As his men moved to either side to flushing out the bandits, their sheer numbers overwhelmed the blockades and forced them out of their advantage. Before long, Tarrow and the other militia volunteers were surrounded by brutish, savage men with war paint on their faces and jawbones Lainening their armor. But the battle was not lost- the men's drills and training were not for nothing. They fought back the closing circle of foes, using Tarrow's instruction to gain advantage when they could and focus on a single target at a time. But even as the bandits' numbers fell, they scored blow after blow on the soldiers, and one by one Tarrow's men fell until only he remained. The leader of the bandits growled at him in some bestial rage, and came at him with a savage club fashioned of metal and wood. Tarrow attempted a parry, but the slender, flexible longsword couldn't stand up to the force of the club, and as the maul crashed against his wrist the blade was knocked from his grip. Before he could even react, another bandit bludgeoned him in the back of the head, knocking him to his knee and blurring his vision. All he could hear was a loud ringing, and distant shouting.
Something heavy smashed into the ground beside him, and he instinctively rolled away, thinking his attacker had narrowly missed with a fatal blow. But as he regained his sight, he saw the object on the ground was one of the bandits' heads, sliced clean off at the neck. The rest of the savages stood momentarily stunned, and in the blink of an eye another one fell, this one run through by a bladed weapon. As the circle around him broke into a panic, Tarrow took the opportunity to scurry to a better vantage point, and he saw his savior- a man in gleaming armor, a banner of Eodon planted firmly in the ground at the edge of the clearing. A visored helmet hid his face from view, and gave him an almost machine-like, ruthlessly efficient presence. In one hand he held a sword dripping with the blood of two of the savages, and in his other he bore a massive shield emblazoned with a roaring lion's crest. The remaining bandits quickly moved to surround him, and Tarrow knew he couldn't let them.
He ran forward, stabbing the closest one in the side. It was barely a clean enough blow to pierce its armor, but in the moment of distraction as the savage turned to face Tarrow, the knight was able to bash his shield into the man's torso, forcing Tarrow's blade deeper into his stomach. Pulling the sword out just in time to see another bandit turns its attention towards him, he raised the blade into a block with both hands. But as the brute's weapon collided with his, the pain in his wrist coupled with the girth of the club overpowered his defense, and this sword was torn from his grip as well. But as the bandit's weight caused him to recoil, Tarrow's boot founds its way into the arched brute's face, knocking him back a step. In that instant, the knight- blocking incoming blows with his tall shield- stepped in front of Tarrow, keeping him from being surrounded by the advancing bandits.
"Grab your sword, and make a wall next to me," said the knight in a low, gravelly voice.
As Tarrow grabbed his sword, he realized what the knight was doing, and it all clicked. The way he had positioned himself, the bandits were on one side, and the hideout- likely with innocent captives inside- was on the other. If they wanted to, they could try to rush in through the front door and use the captives as a bargaining chip. But their numbers were decreasing, and by standing between them and the main entrance, they just might be able to manipulate the bandits into leaving. At this realization, memories of strategies exactly like this one began rushing through his head- things he had read years before. Victory wasn't always about defeating your opponent, he remembered. It's about rendering your opponent incapable or unwilling to achieve their goal, even if that just means eliminating a few of their number and blocking off their advancement. The savages could still advance, by running to the side entrances, but to do so would mean splitting up and wasting time. It was so simple. It was brilliant.
The bandits, the four that remained, appeared to be considering their options. After what seemed like a lifetime of deliberation, they ran. Two of them ran away, leaving their fallen allies behind. The other two split up, and began running to the other entrances into the building, either to take hostages or simply barricade themselves inside. Tarrow dropped his sword and grabbed an axe from his belt, throwing it through the air at the panicked brute. His earlier strategy may have failed, but his aim was still true- the axe buried itself in the bandit's chest, and he fell. The knight, lacking a ranged weapon and likely judging it impossible to chase after the bandit while in full plate armor, dropped his heavy shield to the ground, and, hefting his mighty sword in both hands, threw it spinning through the air, impaling the savage against the wall of the hideout.
A brief moment passed, and Tarrow began to break into a run after the two that had escaped. The knight, however, sharply held up a gauntleted hand, signaling him to halt. Tarrow looked at him, confused, and spoke between panting breaths, "But… they're getting away!"
The knight shook his head, walking over to where his sword held the last bandit's lifeless body against the wall. "That may be, but there are only two of us, and they have a head start. In the meantime, there are dying men here, probably wounded civilians, and several criminals who could very well get up at any moment and stab us in the back. Secure the area first. Help is on the way."
Help. The word hit Tarrow like a club to the back of the head. He should have been help, but instead he may have gotten his companions killed. He hurried to the nearest of them and began checking for signs of life. As he fell to his knees, frantically checking for a pulse, he felt a hand on his shoulder, and heard that deep, gravelly voice.
"You did good, young man. I'm quite impressed, actually. From what I saw, you began with a good plan… but planning only accounts for so much. When plans change…" he placed his boot against the dead body pinned to the building with his sword, pulling it out and causing the body to slump to the ground, "…you have to improvise."
Finding a weak pulse and feeling momentary relief, he looked up at the knight, who had removed his helmet, revealing the face of an aging, battle-scarred human man with steel-grey eyes and streaks of silver in his hair.
"My name is Sir Arthryn," he said, helping Tarrow to stand. "Sir Arthryn of the Horselords of Eodon." Tarrow was speechless, knowing without doubt now that he was standing before one of the legendary knights. He hadn't had the time to think when the man first arrived, but it was no surprise to him that this knight was able to not only save him, but also fend off an entire group of bandits with such ease. But the man continued. "But there will be time for formalities later. You check the rest of the fallen and find out who is still with us. I'll secure the inside and free the captives."
Through some miracle, none of Tarrow's men were killed, though all of them had suffered broken bones and required immediate attention. One of the bandits was still alive, though unconscious and bleeding profusely into the packed dirt outside the hovel. Of the bodies of the merchants, none of them had survived. A few minutes later, more members of the town guard had arrived, and Sir Arthryn emerged from the hideout moments after, escorting three severely beaten women from inside. The guards rushed them to safety along with the injured militia soldiers and the dying bandit, and after making sure everyone was accounted for, Sir Arthryn led the squad back to their hamlet atop his mighty steed.
On the way, he talked with Tarrow. He commended him on reacting to his duty as quickly as he did, and although he was clearly inexperienced, his knowledge of strategy and ability to lead men in battle was not something that comes along often. Because of Tarrow's leadership and service, at least three women's lives were saved.
As they dismounted Sir Arthryn's steed back in town, the knight put his hand on Tarrow's shoulder once again.
"Young man… Tarrow Sharn… As I said, I was very impressed with how you handled yourself. I have been looking, across the country, for a suitable squire to train so that someday he may join the company of the Horselords of Eodon. If you are willing, I would be pleased to have you."
Strumming the lute in front of the dying fire, Sir Tarrow remembered that day as if it was yesterday. It was one of the happiest moments of his life- perhaps only second to the moment when, four years later, he was able to finally stand as a knight, as a Horselord, among the crowd of allies and brothers-in-arms which welcomed him with open arms. He had spent four years of training, of improving his skill in battle, of proving to himself and to the knight which had given him the opportunity of a lifetime that he was truly worthy of his new title. His entire childhood was spent learning, discovering- and those four years were spent honing, perfecting. Now, upon becoming a knight, he was able to lead allies into combat, direct the tide of war, and truly know the path of battle before it even began. Sir Arthryn was with him every step of the way, first as a superior, a mentor- and then as a friend, a peer, an equal. Tarrow, or Sir Tarrow as he would then be known, vowed to uphold the values and honor of the Horselords of Eodon no matter what that meant.
As he sat in front of that fire, out in the wilderness, after everything he had come through in the years since he had been made a knight, it became clear to him that he had stopped playing. His mind had begun to wander… to more recent events… to the things that had happened as of late, over the past year. He remembered his allies, his friends, his king… his family…
No, that's enough for one night, Sir Tarrow thought abruptly to himself. He set the lute down, tossing a bucket of water onto the glowing embers. He needed to get to sleep… it was late and tomorrow was going to be a busy day.