Friday, April 16, 2010

Free Fiction Friday: Mohan's Tale (Part One)

The Fire and the Western Wall

We sat in the flickering light of the fire for an eternity before someone broke the silence. Grolnar hunkered against the tall rock, sharpening his axe, occasionally muttering something in Dwarven under his breath. Morek and I were too exhausted from the battle to do more than stare at the fire. Raevon gnawed on a boar's leg, stoking the flames up around the beast as he chewed. No one knew where Anali got off to, but then, when did we ever? Zannamerlynne reclined in her tent, some distance away – her old books and ancient scrolls illuminated by wizard's light.

It was the cleric who broke the silence. That strange heretical priest we'd picked up in Haesenflay; he said, “It's nice to sit beside a fire after these long nights with goblins at our heels. I am sorry they had to die, but I must admit a certain gratitude for the respite,” he looked up at a moon the color of blood and rust. “I don't think it will last.”

Raevon spit.

“You may be right, priest,” I said, absently stoking the embers in front of me. “We're near the edge of Merridan's map. If he's right about the Goblins, I think there will be a lot more killing before we're through. You may even have to pick up a cudgel yourself.”

The old man sighed. The lines on his face deepened. His scars seemed to turn white in the dancing firelight. When he looked up at me, his eye – the bad one, the white one – it turned and fixed me. I think I lost a year off my life then.

“Can I tell you how I came to be in the service of Pelor?” He looked so tired then. We knew he was twice as old as any of us – well, maybe not twice as old as Grolnar and Raevon – but he was past his prime. Again I found myself wondering how he'd talked us into letting him come along. Sure he'd proven himself since. Even with that damn vow of his, he stood up in a fight. We were all still living, and that was proof enough of his worth, but -

“Do I have a choice,” I asked, half in jest.

“Of course,” he said, removing his heavy cloak. The bronze and iron clasp – one of the many holy symbols he kept about his person – he placed gingerly atop the folded cloth. Even in his age, the man was huge. A Mountain. “I would not seek to bore you, but you asked me about my Divine visitations. This was one of them.”

“Let him talk,” the Dwarf said, laying his axe down for the first time since the battle was quit.

“I want to hear this too,” Anali said from somewhere in the shadows to the south. I searched for a moment before spotting her in a low tree branch, reclining against the trunk. The Cleric did not wait for the rest of us to consent.

I am... No. I was General Daskehgandé, of the Army Luxlucitus. Don't make that face. I led the Shadow-Cloaks against the Wyrm Frostclaw. I was there at the sacking of Narvellan. When the Solis Battalion and Laerian charged the White Gates and took the Crown, I stood under the Western Wall against the King's First Legion.

Raevon was smirking. He didn't believe the cleric any more than I did. “The Army of Light was evil,” he said. “They threw down the Boy King and Laerian took the throne before anyone knew what had happened.”

Anali piped in, “Narvellan is a disgusting, evil place,” she said. “And King Laerian is the most despicable tyrant in a hundred leagues.” She was hooked already. Poor little thing was too gullible; Halflings love to hear about the fall of Narvellan.

Let me tell you two things about the Sack of Narvellan. First, the Boy King was untested, unschooled, and unprepared for an attack upon his Crown so soon after his father's death. But the bards would have you believe that Luxlucitus stood against the boy alone. They wanted villains, and villains don't fight armies. But I stood with my troops under the Western Wall that day.

Three-hundred and forty-seven men died there. Two-hundred and seventeen of them were mine. Most of them no older than you lot. Some of them were only boys – you've seen how the militias recruit. Luxlucitus was no better.

And I won't excuse their actions. We knew knew Laerian before we followed him into the first battlefield at Kairlown. Hell, he was my friend. I stood beside him when he first took command of the Luxlucitus. He made me a general. He was our leader, and the few remaining Shadowcloaks flocked to his banner when he put on that crown; but I did not lead them against a child.

Laerian's Solis did that. I wasn't in the throne room, but I know the story. Laerian slit the boys throat with a boot knife and then watched him bleed out on his mother's favorite Fey-weave rug. Then he took the woman to bed and declared himself the new monarch at sunrise.

I was gone by then, but here's the second thing you need to know about the Sack of Narvellan. The bards were right. Orvan should have been king. He was a good man, even at that tender age. Laerian was the villain. The valiant Army of Light sent by the gods to liberate Narvellan and bring peace to the Three Cities was an army of conquerors. And we brought neither peace nor anything good to that Kingdom.

When it was over and done. Maybe even while Laerian was slaughtering the child, I put my sword in the ground and sat on a low rock in the shadow of the West Wall. My armor was caked in blood. My joints hurt, and I wept.

Two of the King's bowmen had fallen from the ramparts and lay entangled in a mass of corpses in some sort of mock orgy. I didn't even know them for the King's men, their body's were so entwined with my own soldiers. I had to pull up their tunics to distinguish the color. Even then I had to look at their faces to be sure.

This was a graveyard now. A haunted place, riddled with death. Already, the black spots in the sky heralded the carrion feeders. It was no different than any other corpse-field I'd seen a dozen times before. But I was gripped in a Melancholy.

My father had wanted me to be a teamster. I knew I could never make a living as he had though. Killing is the only thing I was ever good at.

I said I wept. I wept after every battle. My men called me “the Old Woman” when they thought I was out of earshot, and then eventually to my face. It didn't matter. Until that battle, I'd never led them astray. I'd have died myself for each and every one of them, and they knew it. They were my men.

But I didn't weep for them. I wept for this curse. For all the rage and anger and adrenaline and fear and hurt welled up inside me. For this inability to do anything else well. It sickened me. Not the killing, but the necessity for it. And the pointlessness of it all. Luxlucitus marched against Narvellan under the pretense that the Boy King would rule with iron and flame – no better than his father. And so we replaced the could-be despot with Laerian the tyrannical. Two-hundred and seventeen of my men died for a cause that was a lie. A hundred and thirty more trying to stop us.

Sitting on my rock, staring at the fallen all around me, my head began to ache. I saw the light of the setting sun flare up and become brilliant, blinding. I could not shield my eye against it.

And then, he was there. The Servant of Pelor. Quicksilver and Fire, on wings of golden light. It strained my eyes to look at him. Yes, “eyes.” I haven't seen out of my right eye since the battle of Hewn, when I caught Old Trauggar Axehand's legendary blade in the face; but I swear it to you. Both my eyes strained to be able to see him.

He lit on the battlefield before me, slinging his radiant greatblade onto his back, between his wings.

He told me I was at a crossroads. Continue as I had. Become Warlord for the newly crowned King Laerian and see many more battles – much victory and blood. Riches beyond my imagining and glory, fame and infamy to pile on top of it.

Or, by the grace of the Shining One, I could walk away.

Lay down your weapon and never again take it up,” he said.

My protests seemed to fall on deaf ears. What would I do? How would I turn away from Laerian – My friend? Why would I turn away from the promise of wealth and glory?

When he finally spoke, I knew the answer before the Angel of the Lord gave it voice. “Laerian is not a good man.”

Again I protested. Neither was I. Who was I to call myself Laerian's better? How could I be any different?

“Lay down your weapon and never again take it up.”

In the end, I stripped off my armor and wrapped one of the bowman's cloaks around my leathers. All the while, the Angel hovering behind me, watching. Before I left, I turned back and looked at him one last time.

He bid me make my way to the Temple of the Weeping Dusk. They would have me, he said.

“Mohan,” I said when he finished, “Daskehgandé died at the battle of Narvellan. Everyone knows that.”

“Yes,” the Cleric's voice as somber, “and his body lies in the great tomb beneath Orvan's Castle. His Armor and Great Blade hang in a place of honor in the King's War Room. I've heard all this.”

“Then how can you expect us to believe -”

Anali was standing just inside the fire's light, her dagger drawn. “Laerian couldn't very well tell anyone his second in command had abandoned him,” she said. Her dark eyes never left the cleric's haggard face.

“What?” I asked her, “you don't believe him?”

Anali sheathed her dagger, but the darkness never left her gaze. Neither did Mohan. “Yes.”
The others were silent for the first time since we'd all come together. No one else spoke up. The air had grown heavy.

“My parents died in Laerian's purge of the Three Cities,” Anali said. “We were all marched out the King's Way toward the Vales. I was only a babe. Someone picked me up and stuffed me into a linen cart when they fell.” She was in the cleric's face before I even realized I might need my sword. I had no idea the Halfling could move so fast.

“You did that,” she spit, but his hollow, blue eye just stared back at her. I didn't see that she'd drawn her dagger again until she put it away. I had no idea that she'd cut him until after we'd pushed the goblins back at Kaerfalevel, when I was trying to stop his bleeding from the spear in his shoulder, and I saw the wound.

“You saved my life, human,” she said, “and then you saved it again. And again tonight against the goblins. But I will never forget what you did to me. What you did to my people. Everyone knows Laerian would have fallen before sunrise if the Shadowcloaks and their gods-damned weeping cyclops hadn't been there to throw down the First Legion. Corian might have become King, or Haris – maybe the Queen herself would've taken the throne – though I doubt it. Not with her dead child's ghost haunting the throne room.

“But if it wasn't for you Laerian would be dead and gone and the Halflings of Narvellan would still be in Narvellan where they belong. My parents would still be there.”

Raevon must have seen the dagger. He was standing near them, his spear at the ready - I have no idea what he thought he was going to do with it, but it gave the rest of us pause. We just sat there in silence.

“I won't fight you, Anali,” Mohan said, finally. “And you're not wrong. I have a great many crimes to answer for, and I intend to answer them. If you think my death serves that purpose, then finish your cut, and go with the blessing of the Sun Father.”

She put her knife away then. “I don't have any idea why Pelor would choose a mongrel butcher like you,” she said, “but even I'm not dumb enough to put an end to what gods begin.”

She turned to me then, “but I'm done with this. I'll finish what we started, whether we find the ruin or not – I'm done once we're back to Haesenflay. I won't ask you to be rid of him before we go up against what is sure to be a vicious enemy – he's a good healer – but I won't travel with him after this. And I won't travel with you if you'll have him. Even for one battle.”

And she was right. No matter who came back from those next few days in the dungeons below Kaerfalevel, it was over that night. Our company was broken before we even entered the ruin. I'm amazed anyone lived.

That was all Mohan's doing. I could blame him for breaking us up, but he saved us. He even kept Anali alive through to the end.

She left – just like she said she would. She wouldn't travel with the Butcher of Kairlown. But there was sadness in her when she went. She owed that man more than just her life. We all did. And we all knew it; there is a dark evil below Kaerfalevel.

So we few survivors, split the treasure and went our separate ways. True to his word, Mohan took none of it. Only those things that were clearly meant to be his. The Holy Symbol we found below the Stone Arch – the scrolls of Mayaheine he gave to the local temple, what little silver Zanna put in his coin purse to carry him on his way.

And like that he was gone. They all were.

It's not how I thought it would end.

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