An old soldier reflects on his past to find a path for his future.
|Sleep had eluded Paricus yet again. His mind was churning with the tumultuous eddies of his past, stirring him to restlessness and driving him from his bed. The dawn, as it bled across the mountains visible from the spacious balcony of his villa in motes of blood and fire, found him sitting in an uncomfortable chair of Aelonian craft, carved from some unidentifiable dark wood stained nearly black with a seat woven from strips of reed grass. Wrapped in a woolen quilt to stave off the early morning chill, he was staring deeply into the surface of an old hand mirror, studying the tarnished reflection that quietly stared back. There mirror had once belonged to his wife, back before she had blown out of his life like a raging storm, never to be seen again. He’d long ago thought that he had rid himself of any memory of her. In his sleeplessness, roaming through the halls of his villa he’d stumbled upon this little remnant of her, a small but disquieting ghost he’d thought forgotten. A tired, scruffy faced old man watched him from the depths of the other universe held in the confines of the glass. He was still big despite his age; standing at least a head over six feet in height with broad shoulders, thick arms, and a strong block shaped jaw line. At one time he’d had a wild mane of long dark hair that had cascaded in luxurious waves over his shoulders and down his back. He couldn’t stand watching it grey, however, and now his servants shaved his head regularly.
The Aelonian natives called him the Butcher of Foothold. His Ishtali brethren found honor in the name. They sang the praises of his exploits in the taverns and the inns, and by the campfires at night. Paricus pretended not to hear, while inside he cringed, shivering with the cold finger of guilt that rode along his spine. He didn’t see a butcher in his reflection. He saw a failure. He was a failure as a husband, too blind to see that his loving wife was far more loving to his younger brother. He was a failure as a father, unable to save the life of his only son when the boy lay dying in his arms, bleeding from the spear wound in his side as he gasped for breath. His brother, Sarif, had died in the same battle not long after. Both brother and son had looked up to Paricus with a strange sort of reverence all their lives. It was only inevitable that they would join the army, as he had. His wife had blamed him for both their deaths the day she fled his presence. He still had his daughter, but they hadn’t spoken in years. A few scant rumors said that she was fighting some other war in some other nobleman’s army in some other part of the world. He wondered if the girl’s mother, wherever she was, blamed him for that too.
He set the mirror aside, face down, and allowed himself to recline at last with a heavy sigh. The sun had not yet risen high enough to spill light down into the valley. Paricus’s house dripped with the same early morning dew that clung to the grasses in the rolling fields around his home, giving Paricus the impression of an immense and silent sea of silver and grey. Somewhere down the long dirt wagon road, a farmer’s cattle bellowed to be fed and milked. The local village was two miles away but on quiet mornings the sounds of the hungry livestock carried across the distance.
Paricus turned to see one of the house servants, a man of an age with Paricus; small, frail, and bent standing in the doorway connecting Paricus’s room with the balcony. The man had the typical almond shaped eyes, wide nostrils, and tanned leather coloration common in Aelonian blood. He was dressed in the plain white servant’s garb Paricus supplied to those in his employ, wrapped in a heavy shawl against the morning air.
“My lord,” he said in his native language, “Have you been up all night?”
“Yes, Vetral,” Paricus replied in the harsh common trade tongue, offering the other man a small smile, “All night.”
Paricus understood the Aelonian speech passably enough, but had never learned to speak it. Luckily the merchant caravans had spread their own bastard language across the world. There were very few places in existence where the trade tongue was not understood.
“Dreams again?” Vetral asked.
“No,” Paricus said, shaking his head, “Just restless.”
“I will make some hot tea,” Vetral clucked, “and you will rest. It is an old family recipe of mine; chases away nightmares and brings sleep. My mother brewed it for me when I was a child.”
As he turned to hustle away into the depths of the house he added, “I shall inform the kitchens that you will be taking your breakfast late this morning.”
“Vetral,” Paricus called before the man could vanish completely. He heard the slap of bare feet against the stone floor followed immediately by the reappearance of the servant.
“Do you hate me?” Paricus asked.
Vetral’s brow furrowed with sudden confusion, “Hate you, my lord?”
“Yes,” Paricus replied calmly, “Do you hate me.”
“Why should I do such a thing,” Vetral asked, now concerned.
“You are Aelonian,” Paricus stated bluntly, “Am I not the man who brought the invaders to your shore? Am I not the man who slaughtered your people? Did I not bring your capital crashing down around the heads of your dying king and queen? Are you not now forced to serve me? Am I not, “Paricus paused as the words caught in this throat, “The Butcher, as I am known to be called?”
There it was, hanging in the air between the two men like a declaration of war. The name so dreaded, so despised by the man who bore it unwillingly over his head.
Just the other day an envoy had arrived at Paricus’s home, bringing with him a suit of half plate armor. Its cuirass was finely wrought from Ishtali steel, engraved with intricate carvings which detailed Paricus’s military career, portraying the old soldier as a fire breathing dragon amid his foes. The surface was enameled in a glossy black that caught the light and seemed to swallow it rather than reflect it.
“Our lord has a need of you,” the envoy had said.
“I’m retired,” Paricus told him simply.
“Lord Yusara does not need your sword arm, Captain,” The envoy replied, “There is a summit to be held by a number of noble houses in six days. As you know, these meetings are held once every five years, but they are often the breeding ground for new wars born of old insults. Our lord has hoped that you would attend alongside him. He requests that you wear this, a gift and an incentive. He needs your name, not your talent.”
“My name,” Paricus said numbly, “You mean…”
“Yes,” the other man interrupted, “Your name. While you hide in this back country hollow your name encircles the globe like the sun. You have become quite renowned in important circles. Lord Yusara has soldiers and fighting men aplenty. What he needs is an icon, a hero to our people and a dread to our enemies; a dark knight, a black knight. He would make you such a man, and all you must do is shoulder the burden of your name.”
Paricus said nothing to the envoy. Several of his servants had approached, expecting trouble. Paricus had waved them away, telling them to take the armor and place it somewhere out of sight. He’d offered the hospitality of his house to Lord Yusara’s messenger, but the envoy declined, sensing the cold hostility behind the generosity.
“A dark knight,” he said as he prepared to depart, “A hero to our people, a dread to our enemies. Your presence alone could help Lord Yusara maintain the peace he has worked so hard to establish; the very same peace that you fought for. Think on that, Captain Paricus.”
“You are that man,” Vetral replied at last. Something came alive behind the old man’s eyes, some inner fire that had been burned down nearly to nothing and now having found renewed breath, was sparking with fresh life. “And I did hate you, long ago. I despised you.”
“But,” he added, the inner flames burning down again, “Some years ago, my daughter told me that she had been attacked by three Ishtali men while in the market that day. They grabbed her off the street and took her kicking and screaming into a nearby alley way.” He paused, spreading his hands helplessly. “No one stopped them. They would have done…terrible things to my child. It is very possible I wouldn’t have a daughter anymore, if not for the sudden appearance of a fourth man.”
Paricus felt his teeth set in a clench, remembering. The day had been hot and dry as winds of dust blew across the bustling streets. He’d wanted to walk amongst his neighbors. To hide himself, he’d dressed as a beggar and come to town alone by foot. He hadn’t seen the girl taken, but he heard her desperate cries from the alley and saw the way people avoided the space. It had made him so angry.
“This fourth man told the Ishtali thugs to stop, to leave my daughter alone.” Vetral continued. “They pulled weapons, advancing on him like a pack of wild dogs. Other men would have run. If they did not run, they would have died. My daughter said that this man fought, cutting the others down with their own weapons as a scythe cuts the wheat in a field.”
In the fight some part of Paricus had known he should stop at subduing the other men, but he had been reliving the battle for Foothold, struggling through the trench lines uphill toward the broken wall of the city, a knife in one hand and his other curled into a mailed fist. He’d lost his sword and shield early in the melee. He was a fury then, a beast in human skin, leaving a trail of broken bodies in his wake. The surviving Aelonian defenders were soon fleeing him. When the killing was done and he found himself again in an alleyway standing over three dead men, the girl had been pressed against the alley wall, watching with wide frightened eyes. It was then that he realized she was Aelonian.
“My daughter is alive today, because of that man, “Vetral said reverently, “Because of you.”
Paricus noted with amusement that Vetral left out the part where he had touched the girl’s shoulder to see if she was alright and she had screamed and slapped him nearly senseless before wrapping her arms around him and clinging tightly to his chest. It was the only blow he’d received in that fight.
“You were a soldier,” Vetral said, “You did the things soldiers do. I hated you for that. Now, you are a man, a good man, and I serve you faithfully.”
He turned slightly and waved his hand, gesturing to the inside of the house. “We all feel the same.”
Paricus thought momentarily on what Vetral had told him. The words weren’t the damnation he had expected, or the salvation he was looking for. He felt no different now than he had a moment ago, but he found that he had a different perspective.
“A hero to our people,” the envoy had told him, “a dread to our enemies. Preserving the peace we have strived for. A dark knight.”
Perhaps there were other ways for him to find his own peace, and at the end of that long road, maybe a moment of restfulness.
“Vetral,” Paricus said quietly, rising from his chair, “Never mind the tea. Bring me my armor.”