Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Knights of the Jewel: Harkinian's First Assault

        Lovisa was the first to find the bard, leaning against an old oak tree in the woods surrounding the training fields. The fields were dormant, free of training manikins, and the only sound was that of the haphazard chords Sanjaia mechanically strummed out on his harp. His eyes were wide, fixated on the distant image of the golem's massive body lying in the grass, but his face was as stony as the carved face of a statue. Lovisa had never seen him like this before. She called out to him, and he regarded her with a disconcertingly broken smile. “Are you all right?” she asked as she approached him.
        “I am alive, thankfully,” Sanjaia said, “as are you.”
        “Thankfully,” Lovisa said. “But look at you! You're so...”
        “I'm frightened,” he told her. “I've never had such an experience, not in my entire life! It makes me wonder if I'm really made for this, and quite frankly, I don't think I am.” His fingers fluttered rapidly over the harp strings as if they had been shocked.
        “But you held out so well!” Lovisa said, laying a hand on his shoulder. The man was trembling like a frightened animal, and she could feel the pounding of his heart. “I watched you out there,” Lovisa went on, “and well, the two of you knew exactly what to do. You...”
        “I didn't know what to do at all,” Sanjaia reminded her. “It was all Eluani! She knew what to do, I was only following her orders. If she hadn't been there...” His body tensed, and his hands tightened around the harp. “I would have been done for!”
        “But she was there,” Lovisa said. “Sanjaia, you can't think about what might have been or what could have happened, because it didn't happen! What did happen is that the two of you fought and you won! It was the first fight against a real enemy—a real, dangerous enemy—and you made it! We all did!”
        Sanjaia looked at the ground, and the next chord he strum out wouldn't have been out of place in a dirge. “Of course I'm thankful for our lives,” he said, “but I don't feel victorious—far from it. And I cannot bring myself to care about a win. I feel small, vulnerable, and like I must hold on tightly to my life before it's taken from me! I don't feel as if I can live this way, Lovisa. I cannot live this way! My life was peaceful and mundane, and my greatest adventure was the daily quest for a new stage to perform my music. I liked it that way, and this I just can't take!”
        “Get a hold of yourself, fool!” Morgana scolded, coming up behind him. Sanjaia turned around, and his face lit up at the sight of her and Eluani looking just as well as they had before the fight. “Morgana!” he cried. “You're all right!” He threw his arms around her, and though her first instinct was to pull back, she decided to allow it in lieu of the circumstances. “I'm just fine,” she said, “and you're carrying on like a fool. Just what did you think it would mean to be a knight? Of course there will be peril! Of course there will be times when we will stand on the brink of death! You agreed to give your life for the protection of the Jewel, and that is exactly what you're going to do, right along with the rest of us!”
        “I cannot do it!” Sanjaia cried, dropping his harp and wrapping his arms around himself. “When I entered this, I did not take into account that I am simply not made for this kind of thing!”
        “If I am made for it,” Lovisa told him, “then you certainly are.”
        “You're so much stronger than me,” Sanjaia said. “You may not feel that way, but you really are!”
        “It doesn't matter who is stronger than what!” Morgana said firmly. “Nobody is going to bow out of this, and that includes you! No one can take your place—there can be no other Knight of the Citrine! You go, and each and every one of your strengths goes with you! And, as proven by that battle with the golem, there are going to be times when you will be required! Are you willing to betray all of us, along with the Jewel and the kingdom of Rasta, just to give in to fear?”
        “I don't want to betray anybody!” Sanjaia said mournfully. “But...the thought of dying out here is just too much! It's overwhelming! I cannot die! There's still so much that I mean to do and so much that I mean to see, and so much music that I have yet to share with the world!” Oh, lights, thought dismayed Morgana, the man has broken out in tears! If he doesn't cut the dramatics, it will take all I have not to kill him myself!
        “Then fight, Sanjaia,” Eluani said solemnly. “In war, the only way to stave off death is to fight. If you give up, you will surely die. But if you turn that fear of death into your driving force, then you will have a much better chance of coming out alive.”
        “I have never fought a day in my life!” Sanjaia lamented.
        “That's a lie,” Morgana said harshly, “and you know it! You just spent the afternoon fighting—and winning—against a colossal golem! Who are you to tell anybody that you can't fight?”
        “The urge to survive is a strong one, Sanjaia,” Eluani told him, laying her hand on his back, “and it exists in each and every one of us. Nobody wants to die, even when death is all around. You will fight when you must; everybody does.”

        There was no viable way to transport a golem of such proportions; the core was to be extracted and the body examined right there in the field. Cordelia arrived with Rasta's knight master and four of his knights, the master alchemist, arcane master, and head magician from the palace, and a small army of Rasta's scientists, public officials, and magitech experts. All eight Knights of the Jewel gathered around as well, but Cordelia dismissed them. “I would like it if you rested after a battle with such an enemy,” she told them. “If there are any others, then I and my forces will take care of them.”
        “But you will tell us who sent this beast?” Ion inquired.
        The princess' face grew dark. “I'm sure that I already know who sent it,” she said grimly, “but yes, any information will be passed along to you.”
        The knights returned to their chambers, and there was nothing to do but wait. There were still a few hours of sunlight left, but Lovisa didn't ride her automaton horse through the countryside. Alicia declined to go out for a romp through the woods and the fields. Sanjaia wouldn't play his instruments, not even to belt out a few nonsense chords. Even Morgana would not retire to the cellar to practice keeping control of her magic. The tension in the air around them was too great to even think about doing anything. What they did think about, and couldn't shake from their minds, were the princess' words--”I'm sure that I know who sent it.” Harkinian. This had been a direct attack on the Jewel a mere week after the arrival of the knights. Did Harkinian know that the knights would be there, or had he expected his golem to stomp right in and collect the Jewel without a fight? Of course he hadn't, thought Troy as he paced his room. If he didn't think there would be any resistance, then he wouldn't have sent that implacable walking tank. The idea sent a shudder through his bones. Harkinian was aware of them, and even knew that they were there, but how?
        To Eluani, it made perfect sense that Harkinian was aware of the knights' presence—there was no way that he wouldn't be made aware of them after the song and dance that had been made of their arrival at the capital alone. Who knew what sort of ridiculous shows he rest of the country put on about it? Eluani was annoyed with Rasta as a whole for such a preposterous fanfare; had it ever occurred to anyone at all that the news would travel, as news is wont to do? Had it ever occurred to anyone that the man must have spies planted among them? That golem had not arrived with the sole intention of capturing the Jewel. It was meant to take them out, and now that it had failed, Harkinian would need to find another way to do it...
        Rodin thought that the golem must have been a test, an iron adversary meant for Harkinian to determine the strength and competence of his new opponents. If this was Harkinian's first assault—and it was almost certainly Harkinian's first assault—then he had been made aware of the knights' existence before they had even arrived. Word had traveled into Aldine, perhaps via spies walking among the citizens of Rasta, that a personal army was to be assembled to protect the Jewel. Such a piece of news would itself serve as a call to action for Aldine's forces. The Jewel would have an army, Harkinian would have an opponent, and now he meant to see just how formidable this opponent would prove. Now that it was determined that the Knights of the Jewel were not to be trifled with, there would be many more attacks from much stronger forces than a colossal golem. Rodin shuddered.
        Dinner was served before any news arrived, and as such it was a tense and dismal affair. The knights ate only out of obligation, though they found it very hard to stomach, and no conversation was made; even the ever-talkative Lovisa said very little. When the concerned servants questioned them, Ion told them simply that they were waiting anxiously for news and did not need to be troubled over. Sunset was nearing its end when Cordelia finally arrived with the news that broke the silence: “The golem's core has been extracted and thoroughly examined, and...”
       “And it's Harkinian's,” Rodin finished. Cordelia nodded.
        “So what do we do now?” Sanjaia asked.
        “You continue your training,” Cordelia said. “This was inevitable; we've anticipated this since Harkinian's declaration. The Jewel anticipated it, and that is why it sent for you. It's very lucky that you made it here before he made his first attack.”
        “He made his attack knowing full well that we're here,” Eluani told her. “It wasn't luck, he was simply biding his time.”
        “Is that what you think?” Cordelia asked, her eyes widening in alarm.
        “It's what I know,” Eluani said. “There is no more speculation involved. Harkinian made his first attack on us as well as the Jewel.”
        “Well, you're here to fight and defend,” Cordelia said, “and now the time has come to rise to that task. As always, train as you fight. There will still be manikins. You will still have the opportunity to practice. But now there will be real enemies, and they are unlikely to operate in the way that manikins do. You must keep your guard up at all times, and your eyes open for anything that doesn't seem right. Above all, remember that this is what you are all here for. The Jewel does not make hasty decisions, and it had a reason for choosing all of you.”
        They were left to sleep on the princess' words that night. When Lovisa passed by Sanjaia's door on her way to say goodnight to her comrades and the Jewel, she could hear the war song of the singing trident as he twirled it energetically through the air. She smiled.

        So, Rasta was so desperate to keep the Jewel to themselves that they had organized an entire army for the Jewel alone. Of course they had; the Jewel ensured that Rasta had the resources for such an endeavor. They could organize a dozen armies if they were so inclined. Still, Harkinian had not entirely anticipated this. He knew that there would be plenty of opposition. What he didn't know was that he would have to tangle with a brand new army of soldiers that he knew very little about. He only knew what his informants had told him: they were a peculiar group of men and women who appeared to have been taken in from some faraway land, it was debatable that all of them were even human, and by the looks of them they would do about as well in an army as a small child would. There was an astonishingly beautiful woman illuminated like a falling star, there was a glossy-haired man who carried a decorated harp, there was a tall and willowy young lady with pointed elven ears, and there were two fresh-faced youngsters who looked just barely out of their teens. Harkinian swallowed his amusement as he listened to this recaps, and when they had said all that they needed, he allowed himself to laugh. This was Rasta's answer to his declaration? A bard, an elf, two children, and a light-up beauty queen? It was utterly ridiculous, and it wasn't until that night, as he paced his chamber and pondered the logic of organizing such a ragtag army, that he began to give it any real thought. Regardless of appearance or even of age, it was dangerous to underestimate anyone who was to be called a soldier. Unlikely warriors existed, hiding master-level skill sets beneath their unlikely appearances. It was entirely possible that these so-called “knights” would prove to be formidable opponents. If they were harboring hidden depths, he would have to uncover them before he could truly act.
        And in doing so, he had discovered that he had indeed underestimated them. His golem had not returned, which meant that they had managed to either stall it or defeat it. Of course, he hoped for the former, but he knew that the latter was much more likely. The golems of Aldine, a technology passed down from the reign of Harkinian's grandfather, were unstoppable tanks that had the ability to stall but were not explicitly designed to. They were employed in situations where force was required and opposition was anticipated, but a fight would be impractical. Now he knew that it would be necessary to dispatch more offensive forces. Still, there was plenty that he did not know about these peculiar knights—above all, the nature of their abilities. Even if the golem had returned, he thought with a sigh, it wouldn't have been able to inform him of the nature of the knights' abilities.
        Of course, if the golem had returned, there was a decent chance that it would have come with the Jewel wrapped up in its steely fingers...

        Training was no longer exciting in the way that it had been in the days before. The adrenaline rush now came from the fear, the vigilance, the ever-increasing feeling of being watched by some invisible, threatening entity. The movements, however subtle, of every manikin in the distance were ominous—after all, when was a manikin not a manikin? Alicia had made the difficult decision to abandon the shuriken blaster without learning to decipher the messages in its runes. As much as she cherished the weapon and longed to learn its secrets, she couldn't afford to fumble over it in the heat of an enemy assault. It would be dangerous to falter.
        Alicia shuddered as she watched over the countryside from her treetop perch, keeping a lookout for any threats. A manikin was nothing like a real enemy, she realized as she watched her comrades accost and eliminate one after another. Their movements were mechanical, their actions were predictable, and though they put up a decent fight, they were pretty easily overpowered. They were meant for honing combat skills and for getting a feel for one's weapon, and for that they were just fine. But as an imitation of an enemy, they missed the mark by far. A real enemy could be anything. There had been no manikin to prepare them for that golem, after all. Alicia pushed the manikins from her mind and relegated them to animated pieces of the scenery, no more significant than the phragmites and the trees and the dirt roads that seemed much longer than they had before.
        At the base of the tree, Sanjaia paced back and forth. His right hand rested on the handle of the singing trident, which sat quietly in its hold and waited to be called upon. His heart had raced since the fight with the golem three days ago, only ceasing when he slept. Like Alicia, he mentally relegated the training manikins to part of the scenery. Enemies were in the picture now, and they were all that mattered. They were all that he could focus on. He only wished that focusing on them didn't make his heart race quite so much.
        “Do you see anything?” he asked Alicia, who had been perched in the tree in the same position for the good part of an hour. She had endured repetition of the same question for the duration of her perch. “Ion and Troy are fighting with a few manikins,” she answered rather boredly, “and nearby them, Lovisa is practicing with her staff.”
        “She isn't alone, is she?” Sanjaia asked, tensing up until Alicia told him, “No, Eluani is right there.”
        “Are you sure it's only manikins harassing Ion and Troy?” Sanjaia asked, his hand tightening around the trident. “Maybe we should go out there.”
        “Don't be hasty!” Alicia chided him. “They are only manikins, and I can tell by the way they conduct themselves.”
        “Right,” Sanjaia said with a weary sigh. “I'm sorry, Alicia.” He shook his head, trying to clear away the tears that had begun to form in his eyes. “It's just...oh, what have we become?
        “We have become soldiers,” Alicia said bluntly, and left it at that. They had become soldiers in a world where danger was all around. Sanjaia admired the will of the elven princess, who had never had to fight a day in her life except for sport. He had never heard her speak so sternly or with such confidence and certainty in her voice. Something had changed in her since the day of their arrival, and it was a change that made him feel protected under her watchful eye. Though his heart still raced, he didn't feel the need to pace anymore. He unstrapped his lute and began to run his fingers over the strings. The sound cheered him and brought back memories of a time when all he ever had to do was play for a room full of smiling faces—had it really only been a week since then? It seemed like so much longer.
        This lute was nothing like the lute that he had used then. It was crafted of painted metal rather than wood, decorated with elaborate appliques of leaves and birds, and of course inlaid with a single citrine that pulsed in sync with the notes he played. The peaceful, contented feeling that came to him almost immediately was as much a result of the Jewel's magic as it was the natural joy that the music brought to him. The lute was a weapon as well as an instrument, but when there was no need for either, then it was a healing device.
        Mixed in with the sound of the notes, a rapping sound began faintly and then increased in volume and energy. It sounded like somebody was knocking on wood. Sanjaia stopped playing, a the knocking sound ceased with the music. He looked to all sides of him and reached for the singing trident.
        “Hey, Sanjaia!” Alicia chirped from above. “Don't stop! Play some more.”
        “Was it you making that sound?” Sanjaia asked, exhaling.
        “You mean this?” Alicia rapped her palm against the branch that she sat on. “Yes, that was me. I'm sorry if it scared you! But I can't exactly dance while I'm up here, so this is the least I can do. Now keep playing! I liked it!”
        So Sanjaia played, starting out calmly to settle his own nerves, and then building up to a merry jig. Alicia added the sound of happy wood-knocking, keeping in time with the music as if she was playing her own percussion instrument. He looked up at her and saw that she was grinning from ear to ear, her eyes sparkling, her head happily rocking from side to side. He was relieved to see that Alicia hadn't changed so very much since the day sh had danced merrily to the music of his harp.

        Ion's automaton horse made its way through the phragmites swiftly and mechanically, the tip of his expanding lance prodding for any enemies in their midst. Troy brought up the rear, his horse keeping a steady pace with the knight's. The silence that had befallen the fields would have been a comfort just a few days ago, but now was ominous enough to reduce them both to shudders. Any number of things could be concealed in that silence. Back in the Arcadian army, Troy and his comrades were prone to engage in battlefield banter. The seemingly pointless battle narrations and verbal streams of consciousness served to calm the soldiers' nerves, keeping morale high while still ensuring focus on the task at hand. He learned quickly that Ion did not subscribe to such methods; talking carried too much of a risk of revealing their position to nearby enemies. “If we were still merely training,” Ion had told him, “and enemies were not a factor, then perhaps I wouldn't mind a little conversation. But now, we must keep silent.”
        This total silence is going to drive me crazy, Troy thought. If Ion won't banter with me, then I'll have to banter with myself. God, I hate these lousy phragmites—I'll be blowing the damn seeds out of my nose all night! I'm gonna come out of here with a case of hay fever. Okay, good, we're finally nearing the end of this patch. Oh, hello, what's this? Is that a little boy out there in the field?
         Ion's lanced clicked into position, his finger resting beside the drill switch. “Ready your projectiles,” he ordered Troy in a whisper, “and wait here.” Troy obeyed, removing his missile piercer from its holster. They dismounted the horses and Troy took his position behind a row of large, leafy shrubs. Ion approached the boy, his lance held at his side. The boy was about thirteen or fourteen years old, with the unkempt hair and dirty face that was quite characteristic of boys at that age. He wore a loose button-up shirt that looked as if it had seen better days, and thick black pants with holes in the knees and ankles. He was unnervingly skinny and willowy for a boy, and where is skin was not pinked with the sun's heat, it was pale as milk cream. He's a ragamuffin, that's for certain, Ion thought as he looked upon the the boy's stained face with sympathy. But still, he is not to be trusted. “Good afternoon, lad,” Ion said cordially. The boy turned to look at him without a word.
        “This is an awfully peculiar place to find a young lad,” Ion went on. “Is there anybody with you?”
        “Nobody's with me,” the boy replied monotonously.
        “Are you waiting for somebody?” Ion asked.
        “You should not be here, nor anywhere near here,” Ion said sternly. “This is not a place for boys. Do you know where you are?”
        “I don't,” said the boy, drawing his knees up to his chest. He looked every bit the vulnerable, wayward vagrant, but Ion's suspicions were too high to feel any pity. “Then come with me,” he told the boy, “and I will take you into the city.”
        “I was already in there,” the boy replied, still without expression. “They told me that there was no place for me there and they turned me away.”
        Impossible, thought Troy, overhearing the conversation. There's no way a city like that wouldn't have a place for lost kids. Ion's suspicions were similar, but he was unsure of where to go from there. His experience with vagrant children was quite limited; every so often they were brought into the palace, and from there they were either sent off to the children's home or turned back into the world with food in their bellies and warmer clothes on their bodies. If the boy was telling the truth, then Rasta City, in spite of its prosperity, must not have had the necessary resources to provide for a stray during wartime. Still, he could not be trusted to stay with the knights, nor could he remain out here in the fields where his life was in danger. In a moment of quick thinking, Ion told him, “My comrade, Lovisa, might know what to do with you. She is a kind young maiden with a talent for caring for others. I will take you to her. Come with me.”
        The boy drew back, and Ion looked into his eyes sternly. “If you remain here,” he told him, “I cannot guarantee your survival. This is a war zone. There is danger everywhere, even if it cannot be seen.” There was no way out. With a sigh, the boy stumbled to his wobbly feet. Ion held out his hand. The boy took it and instinctively pulled back when Ion tightened his grip. His grip on the boy's hand was nearly as tight as his grip on the lance, and any attempts to escape would have hurt much more than helped. Ion motioned for Troy to come out of hiding, and Troy returned his weapon to its holster so that it would not frighten the boy. If he was alarmed by Troy's sudden appearance, he did not show it. He did not even look at him.
        “Those ain't real horses,” the boy said critically when they reached the automaton horses.
        “They do everything a real horse can do,” Ion said, “and more besides.” He lifted the boy up onto the horse's metal back and then climbed up behind him. “They do not stop to graze, or to rest,” Ion went on. “They can travel at speeds that real horses can only manage in their dreams. They can withstand blow after blow, should we be ambushed on horseback. Real horses do not compare. Why, if horses such as these existed back in my homeland...” With a pang, he recalled the humiliating defeat that he had never really had to face. Would such a defeat have been possible with a sturdy metal horse like this one? Even if he had been thrown off...
        “You're not from around here?” the boy asked, interrupting Ion's thoughts. “Where is your homeland?”
        “I'd rather not give such information to a lad I've only just met,” Ion said firmly. “You do not have to know such things.”

        Lovisa had been warned against taking this boy anywhere near the Palace of the Jewel, but what better place was there to take him? “Bring him into the city,” Troy had instructed her.       “Regardless of what he says, there's got to be a place in the city for him to go.” In Eridell, there were no large cities, and entire villages were small and stable enough to take in and care for children like this boy until they could make it on their own. Lovisa herself had worked with several children like this, and she loved each and every one of them so dearly that she made a point to catch up with them long after they were able to move on. But a sprawling city such as Rasta's capital, with so many people to feed and entire armies to provide for during wartime, could never have the resources to do such a thing, no matter how prosperous.
        The boy sat tensely and rigidly on the back of Lovisa's horse, and his stony face remained fixated on the passing phragmites, weeds, and tall, green grasses. He hadn't spoken to Lovisa once, or even looked at her. “He is not to be trusted,” Ion had warned her, “at a time when anyone could be an enemy.” The boy's emotions were entirely hidden, but Lovisa had a feeling that he knew he was distrusted. Either way, he must have been frightened; being bounced around from place to place by strange people would frighten any young man, enemy or not. Even if he is an enemy, he is a child first, Lovisa thought, and she gently patted the boy's knee. “Don't worry, honey,” she said reassuringly, “we'll find something for you. I promise that we won't turn you out into the world.” The boy stiffened when she patted him, and he didn't look at her or respond.
        Lovisa turned to Sanjaia, trailing behind them on his own horse. She had asked for him specifically when the boy had been turned over to her, and now he was there to do what she needed of him; “Play a song, Sanjaia,” she told him. “I think we both might like a little bit of music.” And so Sanjaia unstrapped his lute and began to strum. The tune that he built up to was a soothing, lilting melody that reminded Lovisa of breezes and ocean waves in calmer times. She could feel the boy beginning to relax, leaning back so that his head rested on her torso.
        They passed by one of the sandy roads that led to the Palace of the Jewel, and Lovisa longed to be able to take the boy there, where he could have a bed and some of the good food that the servants had left that morning. It seemed as though he had not had either of those things in quite a while. Perhaps I should take him to Eluani, Lovisa thought on a whim. Her clairvoyance would tell her who he is and if he's hiding anything. This course of action seemed the best; yes, they would take him to Eluani. She would read him, assess him, determine exactly who he was and why he was here...But what if it's wrong? Lovisa thought then. What if she gets a bad reading? Besides, Eluani wasn't the least imposing presence to place before a displaced child. She was sharp, blunt, and no-nonsense, her gentle side hidden under layers of rigidity. It would be difficult even for a clairvoyant to read somebody who was sufficiently anxious and intimidated.
        The Jewel could identify its enemies, Lovisa mused. It was only a throwaway thought, but the more that she thought of it, the better it sounded. The Jewel had identified its friends long before they had even set foot in Rasta—surely, it could identify an enemy on its own soil. Of course, she had been ordered not to take the boy to the palace...
        The sign that marked the entrance to Rasta City had come into view when Lovisa drove her horse to a sudden halt. “Sanjaia,” she said urgently, “look after the boy. Give him some food from my pack. There's something that I have to do!”
        “What?” Sanjaia drove his own horse to a halt. .”You can't leave us here alone! What if there's an attack?” At this statement, the boy's eyes grew wide.
        “Then protect him!” Lovisa said, tossing Sanjaia her pack. Before another word could be said, she and her horse were darting off in the direction from which they had come. There was nothing else to be done. Sighing, Sanjaia dismounted his horse and helped the boy off the back of Lovisa's. “Come with me, lad,” he said, taking him by the hand. “We've got to find somewhere to lay low.”
        “I can fight,” the boy said. “When you live a life like mine, you've got to fight."
        “In that case,” Sanjaia said, “perhaps you will have to protect me!” He hid his unease beneath a light chuckle. 

No comments:

Post a Comment