Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 6

It was the dawn of a new day, and Artemis Redsleeves was dreaming. In his dream, he was sitting in his bedroom, holding one of Orin's old discarded schoolbooks in front of him, trying desperately to read it, though he couldn't discern the words. He enjoyed looking at the pictures, however, and he smiled, watching the pictures dance before him- a large red dragon was waving its arms around, as if doing a comical dance, and a knight in red armor wielded a sword and shield against the beast, standing between the dragon and a silver-haired maiden who was throwing things at the dragon. The story seemed to be told by an old sage smoking a long pipe, and as Artemis finished looking at the pictures dancing before him, he tried to turn the page- to the left, rather than to the right- and found that his left arm simply wasn't there.

Trying to figure out why his arm was missing, he glanced up, and saw the Keverses, chasing each other around the building with a flaming frying pan. Growing concerned from the fire, Artemis decided he should probably look for his parents- which, after all, were right below the floorboards, waiting for him just out of reach. As he bent down on the ground and reached his arm through the gap in the hopes of finding them, he felt a kick against his side. It was Orin, the Keverses' son, wearing a silly suit of paper armor and with an arrow sticking out of his chest.

"Get up, you lazy bastard."

He didn't move his mouth as he spoke, but the words seemed to be coming from him. As Artemis lay there on his stomach, craning his neck to look up, he felt himself growing smaller. Orin kicked him, again and again, repeating that phrase, somehow remaining perfectly still despite his kicks and his taunts. With each kick Artemis shrank more, until he was small enough to stand on the page of the book he was reading. As the book enveloped him, he saw the red dragon was coming for him, still doing its awkward dance. He grabbed the red knight's sword and shield, only to realize once again that his arm was missing.

"I said get up, little boy. This is no time for rest."

It was no longer Orin's voice- in fact, Artemis couldn't quite tell where the voice came from. Another voice came in shortly after- this time, it seemed to be coming from the dragon.

"Come, Tarrow. He helped save your life. Let him sleep a while longer."

Artemis' eyes slowly opened, and as his vision adjusted to the light, he saw the red dragon's face, just inches from his own, looming over him. He let out a scream and tried to scurry away, only to be stopped by a sudden sharp pain in his left arm. He glanced quickly to his arm and saw it had been wrapped and splinted, and the memory of the previous night began to come back to him. He looked back up at the dragon before him, and saw it was not quite a dragon- at least, not as he had dreamt it. The creature immediately before him looked like a man, but his skin was covered in shiny red scales, and his face resembled the sharp snout of the dragons he'd seen in storybooks not unlike the one in his dream. But he wore clothes, like anyone else, and had no wings nor tail- and perched atop his snout was a tiny pair of glasses, behind which two crimson orbs stared back.

Behind the red dragon-man stood another man Artemis remembered from the day before- his smooth skin was also bright red, he had two black horns sprouting from his forehead that crested back over his jet-black hair, and behind his tunic a thick red tail slithered back and forth as if of its own free will. Taking a moment to take stock of his surroundings, Artemis could see he was in a tent, and he was sitting in a makeshift bed. His red-sleeved shirt had been removed, and was sitting on the floor next to his broken shield and sword. His heart was beating a mile a minute, and it was obvious that he was frightened and confused.

The red dragon-man spoke, reaching out a scaled hand to feel Artemis' forehead. To his surprise, the scaled face let out a deep chuckle.

"Calm down, young one. Either you had a bad run-in with one of my brethren in the past, or you're a little groggy. You're in no danger. You were injured, but you're going to be just fine. I'm going to give you a few minutes to settle in, and I'll be back. I'm not going to eat you- at least not until lunch time."

He laughed once again to himself, and then stepped out of the tent, the green of the forest visible momentarily through the door. Artemis closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths, remembering again the events of the previous day- the knights in a circle around the old man, the horned man and the dragon man; the gauntleted knight who broke his arm; and the woman lying on the ground, who pleaded with Artemis for help. Then, everything went dark… he opened his eyes, and saw that the horned man had remained in the room, and sat down next to the makeshift bed.

"Are you all… criminals?"

The words came out of Artemis' mouth before he knew what he was saying. The question had been in the back of his mind from the beginning; he just hadn't quite known if he was ever going to ask it. It seemed to take the horned man by surprise, as his eyebrows raised rather suddenly- his human-looking eyes stared back at the boy before him, but he smirked as he responded.

"My, you get right to the difficult questions, don't you? Well… before I answer that… allow me to ask you a question. If you thought that we might be criminals… then why did you try to help us, especially against such odds?"

Artemis sat up with some difficulty, once again feeling the sharp pain in his arm, not to mention several other aches and pains in his body. He turned to face the horned man, trying his best to face him on the same level.

"Because… I saw the woman that was with you, on the ground. I could tell that man had hit her, even though she was weak and he was strong. Even if she was a criminal, she couldn't have deserved that. It just seemed… I don't know. Wrong. Especially for a knight."

The horned man studied him, squinting momentarily.

"I see. Well, between you and me, Sanna is far from weak- but I understand what you mean. But tell me. What about the consequences? What if you attacked an officer of the king, and were sentenced to prison- or worse- for it? What then?"

Artemis opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. His brow lowered, then shifted, as he looked for an answer. He opened his mouth again, and exhaled quietly, his eyes slowly scanning the room, vaguely expecting to find the answer hidden in the corner.

"I…" he began after a few moments. "I… didn't think of that. I just… did what I felt was right."

The horned man's eyes opened, and he smiled.

"Sometimes, that's what you have to do."

He extended his red hand towards Artemis, who slowly shook it with his own.

"My name," began the horned man, "is Sir Tarrow Sharn, of the Horselords of Eodon."

Artemis' eyes went wide. "You mean… you're a knight? Are you all knights? Real knights?"

Sir Tarrow Sharn nodded, still smiling. "Yes, it would seem so." He picked up Artemis' shirt and tossed it to him, standing. "Get dressed and meet me outside. I'd love to answer your question, but… like I said, it's a difficult one." He started out the door of the tent, then poked his head back in a moment later, adding, "By the way, I didn't catch your name."

Artemis had begun trying to put his shirt on, but was finding it quite difficult with one of his arms unusable. He looked up to the horned knight's face, and replied, "Artemis." He paused, glancing at the shirt in his hands, and he smiled, proudly. "…Artemis Redsleeves."

The knight raised an eyebrow, opened his mouth to say something, then shrugged and disappeared outside.

After a few minutes, Artemis met Sir Tarrow outside, where it seemed a small camp had been made- there were two tents set up, a small firepit with a meager fire burning inside, and near the fire were a set of blacksmithing tools. The camp was set in a small valley between two knolls, with a large rock at one side, and enough natural brush on each side to hide the camp's presence to anyone at a distance. The red-scaled dragon-man was sitting by the fire, polishing a large suit of armor. He smiled and nodded as the boy emerged from the tent, adjusting his spectacles as he went about his business. Sir Tarrow stood with his foot on a log, stoking the fire, and as Artemis neared, he gestured for him to walk with him.

"Artemis… Redsleeves, was it? Tell me a little about yourself."

Artemis followed him beyond the line of brush surrounding the camp, and into the dense forest.

"Well… there really isn't much to tell. I was born, I worked on a farm, until someone- or something- destroyed my home, and… now I'm here."

Sir Tarrow nodded. "I see. I'm very sorry to hear about that. We've all lost family during these dark times… it's never easy."

"Oh. Well, I… wouldn't really say I lost family. I mean, well… I never really had any family. My whole life I've lived with- worked for- these people. The Keverses. But they were killed by whatever destroyed our home, and now I'm on my own."

Artemis felt strange. He had never really had someone to talk to- someone who he thought would actually listen. He wanted to tell him every thought that was on his mind, but he reminded himself that he had just met these people- and he still didn't know what they were doing out here.

"Now, Artemis, on to your question. Out of curiosity, how well-versed are you in the way of current events?"

"Um… not very. Not at all, in fact."

"Hmm," Sir Tarrow said, raising an eyebrow. "Well, I suppose I'll start right at the beginning. The kingdom of Eodon was ruled for many years by a righteous and just king, Lainen Tarithal the second. He was beloved by many, and the beginning of his rule ushered in an era of unprecedented peace throughout all of the land. He led the armies that exterminated the orc scourge before you were even born, and since then has ruled with grace and kindness towards every one of his subjects, from the wealthiest lord to the lowliest peasant. That is… until recently.

"About six months ago, word arrived that an army had attacked a keep on Eodon's border, and killed many people. A group of the king's most loyal and skilled knights- about two dozen of us- rode away, to find out the truth behind this attack. But we were fools- in our absence, the king- our beloved king- was assassinated, along with his ill son. The Tarithal bloodline, the true bloodline of the rightful rulers of the land, was ended."

Artemis hung on his every word as they walked. The forest around them had seemingly grown quiet, as if the trees themselves were listening to the tale.

"We learned of this news long after it happened, while we were far away from our home. We had discovered the truth behind the attack that had drawn us away- it was committed by an army of orcs, despite the knowledge that not a single orc had been seen alive in decades. But that didn't matter- the attack was an elaborate diversion, to put us where we couldn't protect king Lainen. The mastermind behind all of this, we later learned, was the king's general, Duke Galex. Galex is a trystborn, like me- if you go back far enough, he and I are related, like most trystborn. When I was a child I used to dream of some day becoming general, following in his footsteps- but now I know that he is nothing like me. After Lainen was killed, he assumed the throne, and- knowing that we, the faithful of the true king, would see the truth, he branded us as traitors and charged us with treason against the throne, forcing us into exile."

They had reached a small stream, and Sir Tarrow knelt down beside it, facing away from Artemis as he did so. He began washing his hands in the stream, and he took out a canteen to fill with the crystal-clear water.

"So, then," began Artemis, "you aren't criminals. Your only crime is refusing to bow to a king that isn't your own."

Sir Tarrow stood, shaking his head. "Like I said, your question is a difficult one. It isn't that simple. You see, when we left Eodon, there were twenty-four of us- two of us left the rest of the group early on, heading back to the capitol. One of those was Sir Sealfrey- considered by many to be the king's favorite. He likely saw through the ruse earlier than any others, and left us to investigate. But the rest of us continued on, until we learned that we had been exiled. At that point, none of us knew exactly what to do. Some wanted to just accept our exile and try to find somewhere else to live our lives, sparing any further bloodshed. Others wanted blood paid for blood, and began planning on killing Galex right then and there. Many of us were in the middle.

"In the end, it split us. Half left to return to Eodon and seek revenge, the rest stayed back. None of us know exactly what happened to those who left… except that they failed. And because they tried and failed… We found out later on that because of this attempt on his life, Galex had all of our families- everyone who shared blood with the twenty-four exiled- put to death."

"What!?" Artemis shouted, not believing his ears. "He had them killed? Your families? All of them?"

Sir Tarrow was still facing away, and his voice was not as jovial as it had been earlier on in the story. "All of them. Every one of us, our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children… everyone. Dead."

Artemis remembered the many days he had spent, crying in solitude, because of the fact that he would never know his parents. But now, when he tried to imagine what it would be like to know not only parents, but brothers and sisters, and then to know that they were dead… And not just that they were dead, but that it was his own fault…

"How could you all live with yourselves?" he asked. He hadn't meant for it to come out like that; but nevertheless, he had said it.

Sir Tarrow let out a deep sigh, and turned around to face Artemis. "Many of us couldn't. Upon hearing the news, two of our number- men, loyal knights that I had known for years, drew their swords and fell upon them, right then and there. The rest of us were too shocked to stop them. And even after that, another Horselord left in the night, leaving behind all of her belongings and a note begging us and the gods to forgive her. We looked for days, but never found her.

"The reason I told you this was such a difficult question to answer is that all of us wanted Galex killed, even if, by the law of the land, he was the new king. The moment the rest of the knights left on that suicide mission, I regretted not joining them. I'm sure all of us did. Not a day has gone by where I wonder if I had gone, maybe we could have been successful. And not a day has passed where I wonder if, had I tried harder to convince them to stay, our families- as well as the rest of my kinsmen who gave their lives in a futile endeavor- would still be alive. To that extent, I consider myself a murderer."

Artemis looked Sir Tarrow straight in the eyes, and nodded. "I understand," he said. "And I don't consider you a murderer. I'm sure your family would feel the same way."

Sir Tarrow stepped past, walking back towards the camp. "Perhaps. In any case, since that day, our numbers have grown steadily smaller. The eight of us that remain split up occasionally to cover more ground in hopes of finding somewhere to settle- we're meeting back up with the others tonight. The wilderness is a dangerous place to live, and to date we have yet to find a town where we can live without being discovered. And Galex still knows we live, and hasn't stopped sending patrols of guards to hunt us down. Usually we can elude them, but yesterday… well, you came quite in handy." He glanced backwards at Artemis, smiling. "Though you could use a bit of work."

Artemis smiled, feeling rather proud of himself.

As they got back to the camp, Artemis was rather surprised to see that all of the tents and equipment had been taken down, and the red-scaled dragon-man was packing it up. Next to the fire, over which was some sort of animal roasting on a spit, sat his armor and massive axe, resting against a sitting log.

Sir Tarrow called out as soon as they arrived, "Any word yet?"

The dragon-man looked up, shook his head, and said, "Not yet. But soon, I'm sure."

Sir Tarrow gestured for Artemis to have a seat by the fire. "Artemis, allow me to introduce you to Grash Vesuvix, noble Paladin of Detroia. Grash, this is Artemis Redsleeves."

The dragon-man smiled a wide toothy-mawed smile, and gestured in what must have been a salute of some kind. Artemis waved, still fairly intimidated by his dragon-like visage.

"Detroia…" Artemis said after a moment of silence, hoping to not show any disrespect. "That's the goddess of civilization, right?"

Grash nodded, finishing up the last of the packing. He sat down on a log near his equipment and began polishing it.

"That is correct. It may seem odd for someone with a faith such as mine to live out in the wilderness, but there is a saying, 'The goddess always places a road before us. It is our responsibility to recognize that road, and follow it to her.' I see Tarrow hasn't driven you off just yet. Shall you be joining us for lunch?"

Artemis found himself wondering how in the world someone could consider a meal lunch this early in the day, but he simply nodded.

Sir Tarrow sat down next to him, turning the spit with the roasted animal. Artemis could see it was a bird of some sort. "Grash, here," he began, "has served as our field medic and voice of reason over these last few months. It's thanks to him you didn't lose that arm of yours."

Artemis turned towards Grash, trying his best to look him in the eye. "Thank you. I hope it wasn't too much trouble."

Grash shook his head. "Not at all. I should be thanking you, young man. If you hadn't helped us, I'm not sure if any of us would be here today. We're all in your debt."

Artemis couldn't help himself. "Are you a dragon?" he blurted out.

Grash let out a loud belly laugh. To Artemis, it sounded like a roar.

"Boy, you flatter me. I suppose the answer is yes and no. I am what's called a 'draconian'. They say my people are descended from the dragons of old, but believe me, there's quite a few differences between true dragons and myself. The temperament, for one." He chuckled to himself, and even Sir Tarrow grinned at the remark.

"I'm… I'm sorry," began Artemis. "This is all so new to me. I've spent pretty much my entire life locked up in a farmhouse, doing chores all day, every day. What little I know about the world I taught myself. I only know what a dragon is from the pictures I'd seen in schoolbooks I found, and when I first saw you, well… I guess I was confused. I hope I didn't offend you." In his mind, Artemis wanted to add, "Please don't eat me."

Grash laughed again, thoroughly amused by all of this. "Trust me, Artemis, you didn't offend me at all. Ignorance is no crime."

"Which brings me to my next order of business," said Sir Tarrow. "Artemis, I asked you earlier why you helped us, even though by all accounts you could have been labeling yourself as a criminal. Do you recall what your answer was?"

He nodded, remembering the decision he had made the day before. "I did what felt was right."

Tarrow looked at him- his shirt with red sleeves, his arm in a sling, his messy dark hair. "That was the right answer," he said, smiling. He pulled a sword out of a sheath within his cloak, which Artemis noticed was in considerably better condition than the broken one he had been using. "Artemis, I happen to be in need of a squire. How would you like to devote yourself to a life of running from the authorities, scavenging for food and supplies in the wilderness, and training your mind and body harder than you've ever thought possible along with men and women closer to you than family, all in the hopes of saving the world in the name of what feels right?"

Sir Tarrow held pommel out towards him, still smiling. Artemis got the distinct impression he had been preparing this speech all morning.

He smiled back, taking the sword in his hand. "I think that sounds amazing."

Grash smiled warmly, and the three of them feasted on the roasted bird that had been cooking over the fire. Once Grash had finished polishing his armor, Sir Tarrow helped him don its thick metal plates, the half-moon symbol emblazoned on its chest- Artemis recognizing it to be that of a cog, the symbol of Detroia- reflecting the sunlight proudly. As they talked and ate, Tarrow suddenly held up a hand to silence the others- he was looking at something.

Up on the ridge at the edge of the campsite, a small creature was watching. Tarrow, narrowing his eyes at it, said, "Come closer and deliver your message."

The fox did so, walking very mechanically towards the fire. It stopped several paces away, and then spoke with a deep human voice. Artemis recognized it as that of the old man that had been under attack the day before.

"Sanna and I have met up with the others. We will rendezvous at the agreed location at the agreed time. End message."

The fox blinked, shook its head thoroughly, and then scampered off at a frantic speed.

"Well, gentlemen," said Sir Tarrow, "now we travel."

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