~ a short story
One way or another, Beto didn’t feel like drawing his sword today. The man, already armored and lithely exerted for the day’s coming travails, could not shake himself out of this lethargy. The requisite energy for his albatross charge of dragonslaying was decidedly absent. Beto was Potential only, no kinetics flamed his joints to his duties.
He, along with the others similarly positioned in various states of unconsciousness and unreadiness, lay within their communal hovel. Morning rays pillared through the windows of their abode. Beto was the first awake out of a nameless compulsion that had chased him since childhood to be the first anywhere, to stake his claim upon it with the same inscrutable pride that a man like him employed for everything in his young life. Unlike the other knights, he could never sleep in. And thus, it was his role to rouse them as needed. For now, he let them rest.
Hands behind his head, Beto lay back in the straw of the main, idle sword by his side, watching the sky through the hole. In their roof lay this hole from a previous bout, battle damage from a forgotten day’s slay. Covered from neck to toes in his customary bronze, Beto’s armor was sashed with blue in-lines, conveying the calm coolness with which he led his men into battles, belying the ferocious truth of his slashes once engaged with the forces of darkness. Victoria, his trusted wyvernian-steeled longsword, built for him by the ageless ascetic philosopher-smith known only as RiiR, gleamed into his periphery with silent invitation. Beto scoffed at her, unable to remove his eyes from the wafting clouds sailing over the grand blue vista a plane away. His heart above his head, he daydreamed of women he’d never known. The star obscured there within stark white blankets; Beto awaited its presence and pain into his gaze.
From out of his room adjacent to the main, Artor rose with a belch. Walking out his room with purposefulness in his step, Beto’s eyes flashed to him. He secured the final piece of his golden suit with jerking and careless form. Armored like an archangel birthed from the belly of dawn, shining and stalwart, Artor shambled to the door to step out. The hilt of his sheathed sword clanged against the wall with a discordant tone. The reflective sheen of his consistently-cleaned outer mail gave him the appearance of a walking and burning man. He halted at the front door threshold. Outside, sparrows screamed in the open air. The knight’s hands went to his hips, his shoulders slumped. A snorting sigh resounded through their abode.
“Forgot your shield again?” called out Beto without a glance.
“Just blast the whole damn day away!”
Without a step back into his room, Artor fell into his seat with a full day’s burden upon his bosom and resignation on his deflating chest. He slapped his hand against his gut, straining against the rigidity of the plate there. The older man, ever engorged with the pride of more battle experience than the other two combined, had outgrown his truer body. A clang from Artor’s knuckle-shells upon his bending metal gut surfaced, ringing through the air, unto the ears of all three men. A snoring awakening surfaced from the third room, its door cracked. Artor scratched his bald scalp and gritted his teeth. A gust of wind howled into the hovel. The day marched on directly in spite of the knights.
“Almost. We’ll get after it tomorrow…” Beto lisped, as if in a dream. His eyes fixed themselves, nearly shuttered but unsquinting, on the sun’s shining mark, only momentarily lapsed by the shifting clouds. With a shading squint, the bronze knight let his body slowly sink further into the earth.
“No… We won’t,” Artor said simply. “No day is different than today. Waking at high noon, toiling at dusk, crying out into the void by eventide.”
“Just waiting out the threats.”
“Don’t make me kick you.”
“Makes no difference to me.”
“And what if I broke your ankle, what then, Beta? No more fancy footwork, no more jumping away from jaws and into the hearts of your patron’s bosoms. No more shieldless finessery swordsmanship without a leg to stand on. No more working. No more patronage at all. What would you do then, your life’s purpose spent? You may be in it for the glory and the pussy, gold be damned… but you can’t have any of it without your fucking leg!” Artor shouted down to the man reclined in the hay, spittle spilling from his lips.
“You really think you could break my leg with a kick?” Beto yawned.
Artor kicked Beto’s bronze leg, inert and only nudged. Artor stifled a pained cry.
Sun at its zenith, Cirilo finally marched out of his shadowed lair. Shielded from the golden auras up to then by the black curtains he wove himself harboring his precious darkness against the day’s rays, Cirilo wimpered as his eyes slammed for instinctive survival. Equally blackened to the tune of night, his long locks of hair flowed over his shoulders and onto his scarred naked back in a ruffled mess. He wore only his trousers, untied and fraying at every conceivable end. The man grumbled as he leaned himself into a run at the main, stopping in between Beto and Artor, his arms swinging in a loll like a half-zombie beast fresh from its hibernation. Cirilo slammed his back against the front door, the wood further crackling against his weight, and slid down to his seat there.
“Gonna get splinters, Ciri,” Beto said. Artor chuckled. The comment loosened the tension due to the fact that Cirilo was more bloodied, beaten, broken and scarred from his service thus far, than either of the other two knights. Inside of only the previous decade’s worth of campaigning, Cirilo had won a fist fight with a wildscape troll, survived nearly being eviscerated by an aeruvian hippogriff, and recorded three solo kills of hatcher-daemons, a record which stood to this day. Artor had seen more of Ciri’s blood than his own, and they’d only been fighting together for a half dozen seasons. Beto had long wondered how brutally violent the man’s service record had been before they’d joined as a trio. By Cirilo’s words, all his friends were dead. How, when, why? Neither of them knew the full story. The man had never been a talker.
But they saw its effects. In his eyes and in his habits. His body was toned yet wiry, the core muscles of his upper body were unchanging, neither growing or dissolving with the years. The scar tissue was visible in slashes and gores healed over unfavorably by time. The man never cut his hair but, strangely enough, he had no beard. Had it burned away for all time? Cirilo rested once more against the door. He had not dressed in a month. His weapons, an elderwood bow and vulture-skin quiver, were stowed under clutter within his lair, unfired for anything for a long time, not even elk or jackalope. For a while, they’d carried bets on guesses as to how old Ciri was, but when they had finally asked him, he didn’t know himself and so they couldn’t prove a pay out. Cirilo had no memory of his parents or his childhood; by his word: “He’d always been hunting monsters.” Beto charted him as just beyond his peer in time; Artor had him much younger — he’d been aged by the lifetime arena of violence alone.
Though Artor and Beto doubted the worst of his bloody trials had occurred only recently — they’d been out of combat, astray from any sincere campaign against the monstrous forces of the lands for months on end — the cumulative journey of Cirilo’s toils effectuated an indestructible torpor that neither could dissuade. Might they believe in it themselves? If not in thought then in action alone…
Days melted into tendays. Deaf to the songbirds at dawn, abiding the phantom shrieks in the hills at night, the knights remained inactive. No more patrols, for there was nothing to find. No steel flashed into flesh, for there were no bouts, no slays. They had not engaged in a hunt for months. Longest dry spell of their collective careers. Their hovel, providenced by the kingdom and sanctioned by its treasurers, lay within the crux point between the Ghastgloors and Crimson Highlands, where beasts and daemons spawned and roamed with reckless, violent abandon. By the words of the shepherds and amateur survivalists-masquerading-as-rangers, archerian rockmaws, frilled wyvwyrms, and even cockatrices migrated into civilized lands from the west and greater beings such as manticores and wendigos had been sighted in the east. Other nameless and roving monsters, and the bloody result of their motions in the land unchecked had prompted the kingdoms search and hire for knights. It was from here, from the hovel they’d built themselves, that the trio wandered into the farmlands and along the coast, to the ports and into a march to the towns Gladsbury and Wayrenmack proper. Artor, Beto, and Cirilo, three variably experienced knights from disparate locales, in different stages of their respective careers and conveniently present within the capitol of Jaric at the time, had been requisitioned to defend the lands from the monstrous forces within their purview by the King himself.
And for a season, that is what they had done. They’d hunted, they’d killed. They’d done their jobs. But the blood fell away. In time, few threats emerged. Fewer rows had been found. No blood and no glory. The gold, however, kept on coming. The trio were on retainer, for one never knew when their services might need to be rendered. Every other tenday, a satchel was buried in the sludge underneath a nearby bridge, spanning over a stream heading south into the marshes, brooked by red wildflowers and infested by slurries of yellow and orange bloodflies. The primary responsibility the trio carried these days was whose turn it was to retrieve the gold.
The only thing they despised more than their tedium was the gold. Their collective hoard, worthy of a dragon’s admiration and at that point long undivided into an equal share triad, lay in the makeshift basement under the hovel. Though they each surfaced from the poverty of the peasantry, they soon discovered that riches alone were no worthy end. The deployment of these funds stalled now same as their swords, the accumulated gold unimaginatively unmoved toward any investiture outside of their home and equipment, both borne of occupational utility.
The trio lounged atop it now, slightly hungry, increasingly restless to no end beyond the walls they fixated upon. Just underneath them, the wealth of a family generation for each of them wasted.
Artor interrupted the insectoid drones invading their collective mindspace with a word to their friend at the door, face down, elbows upon his knees, unmoving, seemingly unbreathing.
“What’s today for, Ciri?” he said lightly.
Though he did not raise his head, Ciri responded instantly,
“I have begun to doubt my existence.”
“Oh?” Beto weened from his lay.
“Begun? Thought we were past the start,” Artor remarked.
“What’s the verdict?” Beto asked.
“Didn’t say we’d finished the work,” Artor added.
“So it remains a supposition?”
“I believe,” Cirilo cut in between the two, “to prove it, we’d need to first define what makes us, us.”
Artor nodded sagely. “What makes a knight, a knight? A warrior, a warrior. A man, a man. What say you, Beto?”
“I don’t really care…” Beto yawned. “But if I had to provide something I’d say a knight is a warrior, who is a man that defends, that kills, that goes after destiny with hot blood and hotter steel.”
“Well said,” Artor said with cheer.
“However, I believe I must second Cirilo’s restless revelation, for I don’t feel like there’s anything ambitious much left in me. No ambition — no energy — for anything, least of all the monstrous trials of destiny.” Beto’s dreamy gaze upon the star above became too much to bear as the clouds cleared. He closed his wavering eyes to the sol. “What energy is there for us men of action to stake our hearts upon in a plane emptied of its d-”
“Nonsense!” Artor shouted. “What of chivalry! Have you no honor within that noble gilded cage you lay yourself within? How about our past, distinguished careers lived out, rife with accolades and slays? Ciri, look at all those scars you carry. You exist as much as your actions have. And you have been a great knight for many seasons! Think of all that glory!”
“No one cares,” Cirilo said. “Accomplishments can only be signified by an Other. And no one cares. Not for what we’ve done, only for what we will do. The only monster that matters is the next one we will slay… And even it-”
Artor snapped a look to Cirilo, doubting and angry, but then a moment later, thoughtful, upset.
“What about the lives?” Artor whispered, uncertainty plaguing his heart As ever.
“And who is to say that we’ll ever slay another,” Beto chimed, one eye closed, his countenance gone from this world, half-asleep, half-residing in the greater realm of the Dreamlands only he could sight.
Artor grumbled, his fist slamming onto the table. Startled, Beto’s eyes cracked open to the blaring sun, cleared of all obstruction. He winced. Cirilo watched the silvered man at the table. Warmth upon the wood of the door at his back heated his bare skin, making him a conduit again to that old world he’d passed over.
“Chivalry,” Artor said with resolve. “Chivalry demands us be better…”
“Chivalry is-” Cirilo began.
“Not a myth!” Artor exclaimed, finger pointing.
“Stupid,” Cirilo said, his eyes burning into Artor. The older man shook his head, though he could not maintain the meeting with his scarred colleague and looked away.
“Only if you believe that…” Artor rose from his seat and paced to the northern window. The great spires of the city of Acedia lay there, sparkling in a midday glow. Bustling activity could be seen and heard, even from this distant wilderness. Life went on without them.
The old man clinched his fist.
But life went on because of them, too. He observed her radiance, inspiration striking his bosom. Artor turned an about-face to the other two men, younger than him yet more crestfallen and lifeless. He spoke with a steadfast, principled, steely-eyed, duty-bound candor that he had not summoned within himself for many years now.
“We are defenders of humanity. Chivalry inspirits us with a responsibility — a purpose! — with a meaning that courses through our forms and transcends our sole lives. Don’t you understand? Chivalry-”
“For you!” Cirilo said with force, pointing his finger. “To you…”
The air instantly fell from Artor. His frustration consumed his anger, his consternation deflated his ego. He forgot the rest of his words.
“I don’t want responsibility,” Beto announced, sounding enlightened, working a thread within his mind, his eyes still looking through the threshold tear above him there. It had not moved at all and neither had he in all this time. The grand orb, displaced from all of the wayward barrier mists and clouds, stilled there with unwavering solidity in the blue ocean of that superior plane. It lay there for him for all time, the sol-killer noonday spectre of an indestructible anomie superstructure to all his thoughts and actions. He let it ride through his body, filling in all of the cracks of his doubting personas with its faint utterances.
“I don’t want work, I don’t think… I fear I am no longer cut out for it. Something has changed in the winds of this valley. They have moved my passion from me. It has gone elsewhere, to another sword in the fields. My marching has suffered for it. With my blood stolen, I am ineffective. This is why I sleep. In all these days of inwardness, I am turning closer and closer to the realization that my fate is to do nothing for anyone ever again…”
Beto exhaled a deep breath and rested his eyes again. “And I am OK with that,” he cloyed.
“There is no difference between us and Death,” Cirilo said clearly but without confidence.
Artor prepared to offer something more, but a resounding cry of a distant beast shook him from the motion.
He turned back to the northern window, where the sound sourced. Another roar, this time more recognizable, more fully terrifying to the mortal ears cognizant of its originating symbol, surfaced from the distance. Closer, and becoming visible to his aged, unbelieving eyes, a shadow threw itself over the walled jewel amidst the intrepid mountains, summoning an extinctive threat to this city named Acedia. A belch of flame shot down upon the tallest tower and a great winged tyrant landed astride its blackened damage. With another ecstatic scream of impending destruction, the crimson dragon scaled to the top of its perch and gazed with hateful eyes upon the city’s expanses.
With all the others historically slain before their walls could ever be breached, today the Acedians sighted their first monster.
Artor turned back to his two fellow knights. Their eyes fixed upon him with immobile animation melting away all of that day’s previous leisures, falling from a look out into that same landscape.
As the flames fell upon the city and the collective screams of its peoples wafted on the warm winds over the hills and back into the valley of their hovel, the three knights laughed where they stood and sat and lay with unflinching radiance, their eyes open, unblinking and filled with tears borne of hysteria. They laughed and lounged and laughed some more, the depth of its remediating tenor matched only by the rising flames of their chivalrous locus meeting its personal apocalypse. They laughed, and did not look again out of their humble abode to watch the flames. ~