Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 7

It was the end of a long day as the elderly Marquis Fru’al Ronan was putting the finishing touches on a wooden raven statue. In his hand he held a decorative dagger, a gift from an old friend now long passed away, which he had been using for the past few days to carve the hand-sized bird from a block of ash. Over the months since their exile, he had gradually learned it was better to keep himself occupied during his rest than to allow his mind to wander. It had been four days since the group's last foray into civilization, and while it had gone better than others, this particular attempt at finding a new home was, as always, a failure. Exile was a difficult fate in a land as large as Eodon- the nation reached as far as civilization itself it seemed, and in most places being seen meant being chased out of town, or worse. They had been slowly spiraling farther and farther from the seat of the throne, hoping to find somewhere, anywhere, that they could settle and call home. Of course all of them had revenge somewhere in their minds, but as Brother Evard and Anar learned at the cost of their lives, revenge, if it was even possible, would never come while the exiled were stuck camping out in the wilderness. But still… if even Evard's power and Anar's wisdom weren't enough to reach the traitor Galex… then what could be?

No, Fru’al told himself. The Ebony Raven has a plan, and while She may not make it clear to us, She will guide us along the path to our destiny. And if our destiny is to die, even out in the wilderness like dogs or at the hand of a traitor-king, then so be it- when that day comes, She will welcome us with open arms.

Fru’al hoped, however, if that were the case, that he could at least bring Galex to face the Goddess along with him.

He sat around the campfire, finishing the feather detail on the ashen raven's wing. His staff, the ceremonial staff passed down from his father, and his father before him, rested against the nearest tree, its top Lainened with a far more elaborate raven visage draped with strands of beads and ritual fetishes. Grash and Meredith had gone off into the woods in search of food, and Sanna was perched high up in a tree somewhere out of his vision, keeping watch. That girl always did prefer to be alone, it seemed. Bealen and Philip were seated on the other side of the fire, talking amongst themselves and maintaining the group's unused equipment. The sun was beginning to go down, turning the sky a brilliant orange. Off in the distance, the waxing moon was visible, and scattered around it the brightest of the stars were beginning to show. Earlier in his life Fru’al would have looked to the stars as portents of things to come; the last few months had taught him not to take stock in prophecy so readily. Fate belonged to the Ebony Raven, and she alone.

With a loud proclamation of his own return, Tarrow emerged from the treeline, joining the three present Horselords around the fire. Moments later the boy Artemis stumbled into the campsite, carrying not only his own sword and shield, but also Tarrow's sword, their wooden training weapons, an extra shield, and some firewood. His face was glistening with sweat, and his shaking arms looked ready to fall off as he dumped all of the gear at the edge of the circle, audibly panting and walking with a poorly-disguised limp. He had a few scratches on his cheek, and as he sat down next to Fru’al, his knuckles were noticeably bruised and bloody. This was hardly a surprise; he often looked like this after training sessions with Tarrow. It took three of them arguing with the trystborn to convince him to start off training with wooden weapons rather than real ones- but in the end he agreed that while it was important to teach fighting as realistically as possible, Artemis would be as much of a danger to himself as to anyone else if given a real weapon too early. Judging by the kind of wounds the boy came back from time to time, however, it was anyone's guess whether he stuck to it or not.

Grash and Meredith returned to camp just as the last rays of sunlight disappeared through the trees, and with them brought a young doe that would hopefully feed the group for the night. Within minutes it was skinned and on a spit over the fire, everyone's empty stomachs eagerly awaiting their meal. While the rest talked amongst themselves, Fru’al fetched his staff, and, speaking a prayer to the Ebony Raven, asked for Her blessing on this meal She had granted them- its life had been sacrificed to bring them nourishment, but just as all lives shall in the end, it had joined Her in Her domain. He waved the head of the staff over the roasting animal, and the creature's flesh sparkled momentarily, its juices altering ever-so-slightly to be more pleasing to taste. While the other Horselords carried on their conversation, Artemis watched, entranced by the ritual.

The meat was moist and succulent, and everyone present devoured it, especially the young boy Artemis. His hands, wrapped in rough bandages, were soon licked clean after the meal. It was strange watching him- while the rest of the exiled knights viewed every day as yet another day of their lifelong prison sentence, Artemis seemed to view it as the opposite- as if his sentence ended the day he met them, and since then he'd been on a lifelong journey of freedom. Everything seemed new to him, he never had a drought of questions to ask, and even on days when he was exhausted and likely in many different kinds of bodily pain, he always seemed eager to get right back to it as soon as he was able. Fru’al admired that- it reminded him of days long past, of when he was young, and when he was older, spending time with his s-

"-Sun's already gone down so stop asking," Fru’al blurted out, and then he went right back to eating, as if he had just said nothing. Artemis jumped slightly at this sudden unprovoked response, glancing around the fire- if the others noticed it, nobody made it obvious. He was still getting used to the seemingly random outbursts that the rest of the knights had apparently grown accustomed to. If questioned about what he had just said or done, Fru’al would claim to not understand the question. Artemis was learning to just ignore it like the rest.

After their meal, the rest of the group began to disperse, heading either to their watch stations or to their tents to sleep. Tarrow bid Artemis and Fru’al good night, and reminded his squire to cover their equipment before retiring so as to prevent rust. Also, to be ready to get up at the crack of dawn for some more drills.

Artemis sat, watching the dying fire, his body hunched over in what must have been the most comfortable position for his aching muscles. Fru’al held out his new wooden raven, pleased with the end result, and told Artemis to hold out his hand. As he did so, Fru’al placed it on his palm, made a flashy gesture with one hand as he used the other to tap the statuette on the head. With a small red flash, the bird sprang to life, danced around in the boy's hand, flapped its wings a few times, and then returned to its original position, as lifeless as it was just moments previous. Artemis smiled widely, amazed at every moment of the display.

"How do you do that? I mean… I know it's magic, but… what is magic?"

Fru’al took the statuette back, placing it on the log next to him.

"Well… that question would take quite a while to answer. And, in fact, many people spend their entire lives trying to answer that exact question, my boy. But… I suppose I could try to give you the simplified version."

Artemis turned to face Fru’al, ignoring the pain all over his body.

"Magic is…" Fru’al began, "…Magic is everywhere. It's everything. What you see me do-" as he spoke, he held out an empty hand, then snapped his fingers, and suddenly a gold coin appeared between them, "-is only one kind of magic. This kind of magic- called Arcane magic- is one of the most easily recognizable, and also the flashiest." The coin began to spin on his outstretched finger, and- whether it was just an illusion of the campfire's reflection or part of the magic display- the spinning edges appeared to catch fire. "This type of magic is most commonly produced through years of rigorous study, learning to manipulate the undetectable trace amounts of magic in the air and the world around you. In theory, anyone with enough time and devotion could learn the art, but few have the patience or skill to truly master it." With that, he quickly snatched the spinning coin back into his hand, then opened his palm- and the coin was gone.

"Arcane magic," he continued, "can also be found, though incredibly rarely, in certain gifted individuals who are born with a natural affinity for it. For these people, their magic comes not from studying the mechanics of manipulating the magic in the world around them, but rather from a naturally higher amount of magic coursing through their veins. These types of spellcasters often have some sort of magical source in their bloodline, such as an ancestor that was a dragon."

"Dragon ancestors?" asked Artemis. "Would those people be draconian, like Grash?"

Fru’al cocked his head slightly. "Hmm… not quite. Grash's race is part dragon, but that's different. Not all draconian can cast magic, and not all natural spellcasters are part dragon."

Artemis didn't seem to completely understand, but he didn't press the issue.

"But just as there is Arcane magic, there are also other types. Another common type is Divine magic. Some people, like Grash, are granted the use of certain magical abilities from their devotion to their deity. Such magic is often very difficult to come by, and can also require years of study, though in a different manner than Arcane magic."

"Wait a moment," began Artemis. "Grash can cast magic? I've never seen him…"

Fru’al smirked. "Yes, he can, but you probably haven't seen it for a variety of reasons. First, Grash doesn't like to show it off like some do." With that, he opened his palm once again, where it appeared a ball of flame was already burning. He casually placed the ball of fire on his head, where it took the form of a small woman performing some sort of a seductive dance. Artemis laughed at the display, once again amazed by something so extraordinary.

"Second," continued Fru’al, waving his hand and making the dancing girl disappear, "many of Grash's magical gifts only manifest when locked in combat with someone evil."

Artemis nodded. "I've read stories of knights who fight evil monsters, and use holy powers against them. I suppose I hadn't really thought of what that would be like in real life."

Fru’al nodded as well. "You may have been a bit too preoccupied to notice, but the day we first met, Grash used several of his abilities to aid in the battle against Galex's men- in fact, it was because of his magical healing that you didn't lose your arm after that. Well, that, and Grash is an excellent medic, magic or no."

Artemis seemed captivated by all of this- though Fru’al figured it may be strange finding out that he had been under the effect of magic without realizing it. But if it bothered him, the boy didn't let on.

"But one more thing- and this is probably the most important part of all of this." As Fru’al talked, Artemis was on the edge of his seat, rapt with attention. "I mentioned earlier that some Arcane casters have a higher amount of magic in their veins. You see, everyone has some amount of magic- the world itself is a very magical place. Many things that you can't explain are, in some way, magic."

"Like luck?"

"Yes, like luck" continued Fru’al, "though more than just that. Many believe that magic is what keeps your heart pumping. Magic is what makes the sun rise in the morning. Magic is what allows some people to lead, and it's what makes you strong or fast. Magic is what lets you keep going after you've given it everything you have. Everyone has some kind of magic in them. As you grow and develop your skill in combat, you'll be developing your own kind of magic, and some day you'll be able to achieve things with a sword and shield that rival even my abilities with illusion and flame."

Artemis' gaze traveled towards the pile of equipment he unceremoniously dumped on the ground after the tiring walk back to camp. "Really?"

Fru’al nodded. "There's an old tale about a swordsman so skilled that he could strike an opponent a hundred paces away without even drawing his sword."

"How is that possible?" asked Artemis.

The old man smirked again. "Well, I think a large part of that is being figurative… but if you keep training with Tarrow, some day you'll be using 'magic' of your own."

Artemis smiled, and stood up, feeling once again the burning of his sore limbs. "Well… I'll be looking forward to that." He grabbed some cloths from his tent, and then limped over to the pile of equipment he had left on the ground, and bent over to wrap them up, wincing with each movement of his arms and legs.

As he began to hobble back towards his tent, he stopped, and turned towards Fru’al, who had once again begun placing minor magical effects onto the wooden raven.

"Fru’al," he began, pausing as if trying to find the right words.

"Mmm," hummed the mage, still busy with his new toy.

"Sir Tarrow told me you lost more family than anyone else here."

Fru’al's eyes opened widely and he inhaled deeply as, in the flash of a moment, a flood of memories barraged his mind. He saw himself as a young man, receiving his decorative dagger from King Lainen Tarithal I upon earning his knighthood, as a commander spending years leading squads of men through the northern mountains exterminating every last orc that lived, as the Marquis of the Altridge marrying his beloved wife, as the Northwarden of Eodon watching his two sons ride horses through the fields around the castle he once called home, and as a grandfather watching his grandchildren with the love that only a grandfather can have. Then he saw all of these images shattered, all of his dreams of spending his twilight with his family as the governor of their region destroyed by the traitorous pitiful excuse for a man now calling himself king. He wanted to scream, he wanted to stand up and charge straight into the center of the nation he once loved and pierce that devil's black heart with the dagger given to him by the true bloodline of Eodon. He wanted to bring every single member of Galex's bloodline face-to-face with the Ebony Raven to face their final judgment, and if he had to take the world with him, so be it.

He blinked two or three times, otherwise perfectly motionless. He exhaled, invisibly regaining his composure.

"The Ebony Goddess has her plan for us all; it is not our place to question it."

Artemis nodded. "I understand. Well… I'm really sorry for your loss."

As the boy headed off to his tent, Fru’al held the figurine in front of him, gazing into its opaque, wooden eyes. His world ended on that day, just a few months ago; when he learned of the fate of his family, of the end of his bloodline, his mind split. He would never be the same person again. At least not until he returned the favor to Galex tenfold.

He tossed the figurine into the dying fire, an offering for his Goddess. Please, Goddess, grant me the strength to carry on until I join You, he prayed.

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