Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Notebook: Honorable Men

This is another installment in my Maric di Ascalon series, but is actually a revision of an earlier story I wrote last year, adapted for Maric and Sphaeren. The earlier draft was called "We are Knights". I'd like to see if people think this adaptation works.

"Blood in the Snow" by SadinaSaphrite on deviantART.

Honorable Men

by Blake Tan

The quiet fell among them like an ashen snow. Beneath the breathing, the clink of mail, and the crunching of the white-dusted grass, there was no other sound. Through the silence, Maric di Ascalon spoke, his voice joyless and grim.

“They are not here.”

Around him, the green-cloaked soldiers turned over the bodies of the dead. Most of their faces were ruined and rimed with frost, their bodies leaving pink spots in the gray-flecked snow. The corpses bore the badge of a chained bear on their coats, though whatever armor and weapons they bore had been looted.

“These are Dace armsmen,” Sir Henrik said, rubbing his fur-gloved hands together for warmth. “Surely these were Lord Thorys’ children among them.”

“They are not,” Maric replied, “else these men would have fought harder. They died much too quickly.”

Henrik laughed, his breath misting in front of him.

“By the gods, Maric, we fell upon them like wolves among sheep. They didn’t stand a chance!”

As if to answer Maric’s doubtful expression, the tall, lean-faced knight gestured to the burnt remains of a wagon by the roadside. More of their soldiers were picking over the wreck, pocketing whatever treasures they could find. Next to the wagon, laid out beside each other were two small bodies.

“Then who did Smelly Tim and Black Cottle put to the sword?” Henrik asked. “They were of the same age and look.”

“A peasant’s boy can be dressed in finery and play the part of a young lord,” Maric said, striding over to the dead children. “These are not Lord Thorys’ whelps.”

His gaze slowed for a moment as it passed over the smaller of the two. The boy couldn’t have been more than ten, his pudgy face pale and blue and his throat a ragged, red gash.

“I’m sorry, Maric. There was nothing I could do.”

He shook his head, blinking away the unbidden memory. Henrik was kneeling over the lads, his dagger sawing a ring off one of the boys’ fingers.

“This should fetch a pretty penny,” Henrik muttered, slipping the ring off and examining it before quickly pocketing it. “If these aren’t the Dace children, then where can we find them?”

Maric looked south, where the road wound down the mountain. Villages large enough to hide the runaways were few in the Snowfires, though he had an idea of where they might seek sanctuary.

“All of you mount up.”

“We are honorable men!” Henrik roared to be heard above the howling wind, “in service to the Duke of Vasgar, Lord Geofram vyr Wiessen!”

Maric pulled the cowl of his cloak tighter across his face as the bitter cold cut across his face, its edge sharper than any sword. He could barely make out the figure of the abbot atop the monastery walls, his torch alit and held aloft.

“The hour is late, good sirs, and this storm makes it difficult to see for certain that you are who you claim to be,” the abbot shouted back.

In answer, Henrik drew his sword, the pale blade glittering even in the dim torchlight. There was not a single person in Visangoth who did not know that sword – Wintersteel, it was named by Henrik’s forebear and it was said that the weapon was bathed in the heart of an ice dragon long ago in the ages of myth.

“I am Sir Henrik di Vasgar, of Weather Watch,” he announced proudly. “And my companion is Maric di Ascalon. You shall let us pass!”

The abbot did not speak though Maric spied the man cocking his head, as if he was listening to an unseen speaker.

“By your honor and by the gods’ virtue, you may enter,” the abbot said as the monastery gates swung open, “but within these walls you may shed no blood.”

“We swear!” Henrik responded, sheathing Wintersteel.

They led the cold and weary band into the monastery, their arrival greeted by the monks and novices. Their horses were led into the stable where feed and fresh water were laid out. The men were welcomed into the warming house where a fire was lit and mulled wine poured.

One-Eared Pete helped himself to a meat pie a pink-faced novice brought out, freshly baked and still hot. The smell wafted over Maric and he felt his stomach growl hungrily. The abbot entered the room, removing his heavy fur cloak and hanging it on the wall.

“I apologize, good sirs, for the delay. These days not even Kynes’ servants have the luxury of blind trust,” he said, his jowls bouncing as he bowed his head.

“Have you had much trouble of late?” Henrik asked as he sniffed the goblet of wine.

“Every day, Sir Henrik, we have seen looters, bandits, deserters, and all the scum of the earth since the war began,” the abbot replied.

“It will be over soon, holy father,” Henrik said, smiling. “What, with the duke joining his men to King Viktor’s banner, the pretender will have no choice but to surrender.”

“Is that the news of it then? We had heard rumors of Duke Geofram’s decision,”

“Aye, though some of the other highland barons have need of some convincing,” Henrik continued.

Maric, who had been watching the abbot quietly, noted the holy man’s gaze flit to the window. He followed his gaze, seeing nothing but sheets of falling snow.

“Do you speak of Baron Dace?” the abbot asked, his voice quavering ever so slightly.

“How perceptive of you, holy father,” Henrik said.

“Word has it that the duke has marched on Whitefall with the intention of storming it,” the abbot said. “You must have been among his host. Has Whitefall been taken?”

Maric rose from his seat at the table, pacing towards the window. He could feel the abbot’s nervous gaze upon him and his every movement.

“Not yet, holy father, though the Duke Vasgar has his hopes that Lord Thorys will submit without further bloodshed. It would be a shame to suffer such an ignoble end.”

The window overlooked the monastery’s courtyard, where a statue of Saint Demetri knelt, his upraised shield bearing the icon of Kynes the Savior-Protector and, where Maric saw a monk shutting a door to another building and bolting it shut.

“We can only pray that Kynes will grant us wisdom and mercy,” the abbot said.

Henrik also stood, still giving the abbot his widest grin. The knight walked around the table, the eyes of his men following every step.

“Tell us, holy father, when you were planning on telling us that you were harboring our lord’s enemies?” he said, looming over the abbot.

“I – I have no idea what you are talking about!” the abbot stammered.

Maric turned from the window. “Do not play us for fools.”

The abbot’s face turned white, the blood draining from it as he realized his ploy had failed.

“Did you think you could welcome us into your walls, stuff us with food and wine, and send us along our merry way while they remain unnoticed?” Henrik asked, a hand going to Wintersteel’s hilt.

“I thought – I thought.” The abbot struggled to form a coherent thought. “They are only children!”

“Aye,” Henrik said, nodding, “Lord Thorys’ children. They are his sons and heirs and because their father dared to rebel against his rightful liege lord, they must suffer the same fate as he.”

The abbot stumbled from his seat, falling on all fours and crawling away. They watched the holy man climb to his feet with his back to the door, blocking them from it. The green-cloaked armsmen, the white oak of House di Vasgar sewn over their hearts, stood and drew their swords.

“This is a holy sanctuary! You cannot shed blood here!” the abbot cried.

“Stand aside, holy father,” Maric demanded, stepping before the abbot. “Stand aside and you and your brothers shall not be harmed.”

“I cannot do that,” the abbot said, finding his strength at last.

“Why do you protect them, abbot? They aren’t your sons,” Henrik said, the pale blade of Wintersteel in his hand.

“All children are dear to the Kynes’ heart,” the abbot replied.

“It’s more than that, isn’t it, abbot?” Henrik pressed, coming to stand beside Maric. “My companion here figured it out. You see, I might be the charmer, but Maric is the thinker. He recalls that not all of the late Baron Dace’s sons took up the sword to become knights.”

The abbot swallowed, his beady eyes darting between the two men standing foremost before him.

“While Thorys Dace learned the lance and the sword, his younger brother took up the shepherd’s crook and the holy book,” Henrik said. “Are we not accurate, Father – or rather, Borys Dace?”

“I am Borys Dace,” the abbot said, “though you were wrong to think that I do not know how to use a sword!”

From the folds of his habit, the abbot produced a sword, the blade glinting in the candlelight. He held it before him, challenging the two knights in front of him.

“Your devotion to your brother’s children is admirable,” Maric said, easing his own sword, the black dwarvish-blade Anguish, from its scabbard, “but you cannot hope to win.”

“Knights swear to protect the weak and the innocent!” the abbot cried. “Knights uphold the gods’ virtues and honor their vows!”

The abbot lunged with the blade, trying to pierce Maric’s throat, but he caught the blow with his own sword.

“I’m no knight,” Maric replied, parrying to keep the abbot in front of him.

From beneath his monk’s habit, Borys Dace mustered a sudden strength and ferocity that caught even Maric off-guard. His strokes were strong and fast and twice he had gotten past the knight’s guard, though Maric’s mail saved him from the worst of it.

Then it ended as quickly as it began. A crimson flower of blood sprouted from the abbot’s chest as Wintersteel’s pale blade pierced his back. The abbot crumpled as Henrik kicked him off and spat on his body.

“Fool,” he muttered. “What hope did he have?”

Maric bent over the dying priest as Henrik and the others went out the door. There was shouting and the sounds of weapons clashing and men shouting and dying, but Maric kept his eyes on the abbot. He shook violently as he died, blood pooling on the stone floor from the wound in his chest. The smell of shit filled the room when the abbot voided his bowels.

“You –,” he said, gurgling. “You are Maric – Maric di Ascalon. You’re – you’re a hero. Why – why do this?”

“I’m a weapon. Does a sword question when it’s plunged into a man’s belly? No, it only does as its master intends,” Maric said, placing his hand over the abbot’s eyes to close them. “May you walk the Lonely Road in peace.”

Then, the abbot died.

“I am sorry, Maric.” The shaking voice was that of the priest, Jobal, his worn habit and his hands stained with blood. “It was too late. I – I could not save Liriel.” 

They fought bravely and valiantly, and they all died. Not a single friar within the monastery walls survived that night of battle. They had taken up all manner of weapons: staves, cudgels, pitchforks, and even crossbows, but the duke’s men killed them all. In the end, courage did not make as effective an aegis as mail.

Henrik wiped the blood from his face on a tapestry that depicted the ancient Vilya chiefs bending knee to the kings of Visangoth and then tossed the bloodied rag onto the pile of bodies to be burned. Wintersteel was strapped across his back while he surveyed the carnage. Somewhere in the monastery a woman, one of the kitchen maids, screamed and the sound of anguish was followed by the hooting and laughter of soldiers taking their turns with her. Soon enough, her screaming stopped, though whether it was because the men had tired of her protesting and slit her throat or whether she had just given up, Henrik did not care to know.

“Maric,” Henrik called when he spotted the other man turning the corner, black sword still in hand. “The monastery is ours, though the Dace children are still nowhere to be found.”

For a moment the knight wondered if perhaps they had stumbled upon the monastery too late. Maybe Thorys had smuggled the children out before they could find them. Henrik hoped not; he was not keen on chasing down two boys across the mountain passes.

Maric would not meet his eyes when he came to stand beside him. He was wiping off Anguish, the dark stain, like red wine, coloring the rag in his hand.

“The deed is done,” he said flatly.

“You found them?” Henrik asked. “Where were they hiding?”

“The wine cellar.”

“Ah, well, I pray that they didn’t get into the vintage before you found them. There are enough casks under there to last the both of us until the summer,” Henrik said, grinning. “My lady wife will be quite happy.”

Henrik clapped his comrade on the shoulder and walked off, calling to the soldiers he could find to help him cart off the casks. Maric lingered in the courtyard, by the watch of Saint Demetri. A monk had died at the statue’s feet, a spear in his belly, his blood painting the gray stone.

“Not even the immortal elves are free of Janus’ touch. The best we can do is to live as better men for the sake of the dead.” Jobal had patted his arm, trying to comfort him, yet Maric did not feel it. All he felt was emptiness inside.

The elves sang that Aurahel’s embrace was warm, but if that was true then why was death so cold? The Dace boys – they had faced him in the end, though their eyes betrayed their fear. Two boys whose numbered years together didn’t even pass twelve – in the end, both of them begged for mercy. The oldest even pissed his breeches.

No, Maric knew death was cold, like the limp body of his beloved wife as she lay on the floor of their Brennoc cottage, her shift torn by the greedy paws of Ostian soldiers. Only blood was warm, just like the blood of Bryce and Willam Dace as they poured from their little bodies like wine from a cask.

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