I wish I could say that ostentation followed the ceremony, that we all sauntered on an appropriately languid retreat to some banquet hall with tables packed to the rafters with roasts and breads and sweets, with me at the head of the column, the rest of my fellows raining down open handed smacks upon my back and whooping merrily as we made our way across the cobbles. That was the way it was after Gerard’s ceremony. Instead, once the Bishop finished the consecration, the solemn gathering stood up in silence and walked out of the building. I knew that they were all at the ceremony out of respect for my father. Active celebration lay beyond the limits of that respect.
I expected nothing less, and yet the slight stung all the same. One more insult to add to the ever-lengthening list of indignities that I had received at the hands of my peers.
Instead of to a party thrown at one of the more respectable public houses that I avoided like a plague for their patrons with sticks wedged firmly up their arses, my brother, father, and I broke from the group and walked in silence back to the family homestead. We sat down in the cottage to bowls of stew prepared by Mrs. Tarrant, one of father’s leaseholds, some small ale cooperatively brewed by the women of the estate, and some bread baked by Mrs. Richardson, yet another indentured serf.
Oh, the bounties bestowed on the lord of Cardiff Estate.
“ Andrew,” said my father, breaking the quiet as he sopped up some broth with a hunk of bread, “you are Knighted at long last. Are you prepared to serve your King and country?”
Ugh, Christ-man preserve me, did we have to have this conversation again? Did we not just go through the motions with the gods-damned Bishop? And not a single word about my birthday, but of course I had not expected a whit. We had not celebrated a birthday under the roof of my father’s cottage since mother had died.
“Yes, father,” I mumbled into the steam rising from the bowl in front of me. ‘Please shut up,’ I did not add, though it was a struggle to refrain from doing so.
“Good,” he continued, pausing for a moment to bite into some of his soaked bread. “You need to understand that as a Knight of the Yellow Order, you will be given no special treatment as my son. You will be dealt with the same as any other fighting man. And you will be put to work.”
If I had been receiving special treatment up until this point, I quaked in my boots at the thought of a loss of my privilege.
“Now,” father said, dropping an octave to the hushed tone of conspiracy, “I have news for both of you. This will be announced by the criers tomorrow at the eleven o’clock Hear Ye, and remains a state secret until then, so do not discuss it with another soul until after the news has been released officially. The Yellow Order is to voyage south, to the kingdom of Erifracia. As you know, King Revanti is an ally of our own King Janus. The Erifracians are having issues with marauding pirates in the port off of the capital, Tunuska. We are to lend our aid until the problems is resolved.”
“Why cannot the Erifracians deal with the problem themselves?” Gerard asked, dropping his spoon onto the table and staring at my father intently.
“Oh, I am sure they could, if they wished. Erifracia is one of our closest allies, and I believe the two kings have decided that we should bleed together that we might grow closer as nations. The pirates are just a convenient excuse. The entire Yellow Order will be sent down to the coast for this military and diplomatic action.”
“What of the other Orders?”
My brother played the perfect dutiful, interested son. For my part, I folded my arms over my belly and watched the exchange with a cold detachment.
“The Red and Blue Orders will deal with defence of the Kingdom in our absence. Liserian spies in the City are sure to inform the Empress that we are operating with reduced numbers, so it will be even more important to keep our borders well-tended.”
My father turned to me.
“Andrew, I am placing you in Butterfly Company, under the command of Captain Rice.”
My heart sank. Love his daughter Marissa though I may, Captain Rice was infamous for his brutality. My infatuation with his daughter had only made the Captain grow even more surly towards me, and I had not even been a subordinate by this point. My brother, who had shown me kindness earlier that day and with whom I would have preferred to have been placed, was an officer in Dragonfly, another Company. But I could not show my father any weakness, any outward sign that his dictates had affected me in any real way.
“Why must the names of these units be so womanly?” I said with a put-on chuckle. “Butterfly, Dragonfly, Mosquito, Beetle - these are creatures to be squashed beneath the heel of an enemy’s boot. At least the Blue Order has ferocious sounding names: Bear, Lion, Tiger, Hawk.”
“Damn it all, Andrew, have you learned nothing at all during your training?” My father punctuated his roar with an open-handed slap on the wood of the table. “You will show some respect!”
“You know that I have not learned a God damned thing! Respect what? You? This fucking Yellow Order, bane of my short and sad existence here on this Earth? The King? You can all go fuck yourselves, for all I care. It is clear to me now: the only reason for my induction today was that you did not want to leave your home tended to by the likes of me. You would prefer to have me in your little army of serial buggers, where you can keep an eye on me and make sure that I do nothing embarrassing to your precious honour.”
“Yes, Andrew, as per usual, the world is filled with dishonourable buggers and you stand on the outside looking in at the Sodomic mess we find ourselves in, sole male member of humanity without cock in arse,” my brother looked acidly at me as he spoke. “You are a joke, little brother.”
“Enough, both of you!” my father yelled, picking up the reins. “I am sick and tired of the shite that you have been peddling, Andrew, this doom and gloom and abject cowardice! You are a Cardiff! Yes, you will come to Tunuska and you will fight pirates. And yes, you may die with a corsair’s blade in your belly. But Christ-man damn it all to Hell, you will fucking try!”
My father turned his attention to my brother. “And you, Gerard, you think yourself impervious to the flight of an arrow or the slash of a sword? You may be good, but you are not that good. Your arrogance is clear to me, the way you speak to your peers and the way you hold yourself, the way you have spent your days dishonouring your own brother with word and action. It is a folly of youth, but follies will get you killed at any age.”
Father turned to address us both. “You are not fucking men! You are fucking boys! And you will grow up, or I will disown the both of you!”
At that, both my brother and I clamped shut, though part of me screamed to laugh at the way the words had come out of my father’s mouth. I could count on one hand the number of times that my father had sworn an oath, even fewer the number of times he had done it when he had known that we were present to hear him do so. My father did not speak again until the flush of red in his cheeks had abated.
“Finish your meals and get the fuck out of my cottage. Back to the barracks, both of you. I do not want to see you until tomorrow morning. We leave at the first sounding of the cock’s crow.” My father paused. “Andrew, I am not an idiot. I know what occurred this morning. Understand me: if you get so drunk that you stagger out to the docks just as the final ship is leaving, my first act as your commander will be to put you in the stocks on the ship for a full week. If I need to send some of my men to come and fetch you off the filth of a bawdy house floor, you will spend the entire journey locked in oak. I warn you: the Erifracian sun is without mercy.” He stopped and looked at us one more time. “Christ-man!”
My father launched his bowl at the wall. The crock smashed to bits, sending ceramic shards and mushy root vegetables out in a spray onto the surrounding wood.
Taking this as our cue to leave, my brother and I stood and quickly filed out of the place. After we exited, we looked intently at each other for a moment. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words made their escape. Gerard looked as though he wished to speak as well, but found himself equally incapable. Feeling the awkwardness mount, we each silently set off on the path, splitting from one another at the first fork we could find. My brother’s path would take him down the road to the city, the one onto which I was funneled led into the forest. My father might have told me to go back to the barracks, but I thought it high time for my first act of disobedience as a Yellow Knight.
It was still mid-afternoon by the time I entered the wood. I did not know where I was going. All I knew was that I was between a rock and a hard place. My father’s outburst proved to me one thing yet another time: I could not rely on anyone in this world. Ever since my mother died I had been alone, and that was not likely to change any time soon. I walked and walked and walked, taking a meandering route through the paths that ran along the forest floor.
I looked up at the canopy. Although there was some sunlight filtering through the gaps in the foliage, I could not make out how far up the branches stretched. I recalled then that we had freshly entered the Septembus Month. The leaves had yet to change colour, to begin that long slow procession from green to yellow to red and finally to brown, slipping from the cradle of life to die on the forest floor. That summer was ending, there was presently only one sign: the chill in the air that had started to creep in at night.
At least by going south we would avoid the crush of cold that robbed my homeland of comfort every winter.
If I am being honest with myself, beneath the bleak cynicism that had worked its claws deep into mind in those days, part of me was excited at the prospect of heading to unknown southern lands with my father and brother. It was a feeling that I had not felt in years, not since the time that my mother was alive.
I smiled then. It was the first time I had looked on what was about to occur with something that approached excitement. I know now that what I felt was a yearning buried deep inside. A desire for something worthwhile in this life, a light to shine upon the dim lens through which I viewed the world. The anticipation spread from my chest out into my fingers. The sensation was welcome.
Maybe, I mused to myself, there was a way I would not fail in my travels.
This voice of aspiration was small in my head, and one that I completely dismissed out of habit. Hope was for fools, ones that found their ends at tip of an enemy spear or behind the bars of debtor’s prison when the business venture failed. Just as quickly as it had appeared, hope drifted into the ether, replaced with a sudden return to the senses. Senses that were reminding me that I was nursing a monstrosity of a hangover and running on a couple of hours of sleep.
I sat down to rest against the base of one of the enormous trees just off the dirt of the path, enjoying the soft embrace of the grass that stretched up to accept me. Slumber followed.
I awoke to screeching cicadas. The light had fled. The late summer night’s chill had descended. My hand was invisible in the gloom, no matter how close I brought it to my face. Looking up, I noticed that there was some dimness barely filtering down through the canopy. I never paid attention to the procession of the moon and its phases, but my mind was called back to a drink-addled conversation I had with one of the harlots at the Green Dragon the previous night, a verbal intercourse between stinking drunks that bore all of the usefulness that such speech has a tendency to bear. She was of the more mature stock, a seasoned old prostitute named Tara. Old was relative, though, at least as far as the whores of the City were concerned. She could not have seen more than thirty-five summers.
“Da moon, me ducky,” she cooed, “Da moon’s full tomorrow night. My girl in da Purple Run, one a dem red-robes wit’ da fancy jewelry on her wrists, she rolled da bones for me last week. I’m ta find me way out of this shite hole on the day da moon is full.”
I had raised a glass to Tara’s good fortune. I was so deep in my cups that I would have raised a glass to a man with the dexterity not to piss on himself when he was out for a slash, and there had been precious few of those left at the Green Dragon at that advanced hour.
Full moon. If I could get out from the cover of the forest, I would have little problem navigating my way home, assuming there were no clouds in the sky. Buried as I was in darkness, I was as likely to find my way back home before dawn as the pigs that roamed the estate were liable to sprout wings and fly off into the great blue yonder.
I stumbled about for a time, arms outstretched, scrabbling on the rocks and twigs. My mind was racing. I had felt hope earlier that day, and here I was having it snatched out from under me again. Just my gods-damned luck. I fell down twice, when my foot got caught in what felt like gnarled roots. After an eternity of desperate scrabbling, I sat back on hard packed dirt, exhausted. Defeated.
I remember the sound that came next very well. It was a loud and abrupt noise. It reminded me of the claps and crashes of the fireworks that old Roger up on the hill used to launch every summer at the midsummer festival, before he took a stroke down at the Green Dragon, getting tugged under the table by one of the young maidens fresh into the business.
It was the sound of a thick branch snapping under the weight of something heavy as it pounced.
I did not have time to react to what I heard. I was suddenly struck by a furry warm bulk and knocked from my sitting position onto my back. What air was left in my lungs made a hasty retreat and a weight pressed so heavily onto my chest that I could not draw any more back in. I felt a crushing sensation in my right forearm, like it was caught in a vice. It was pinned against me. If I had the air to do it, I would have screamed. I reached out with my free hand to try to push off the beast that had attacked me.
When I had regained a small measure of my senses, I assumed a wolf was my assailant. Packs roamed these woods and played marauders to the dirt-poor forest-dwellers, hunters and foragers who ended up at the taverns on the outskirts of Isha, usually the Green Dragon, soon besotted and eager to loudly tell stories of chicken coop raids and children torn apart when they wandered out of the cabin at night. Then my fingers found warm fur, but there was something unexpected about it. It much too short to be that of a wolf. And whatever it the creature was, it was larger than a wolf, nearly as big as me.
An enormous paw was crushing my sternum. Beneath the beast’s skin, I could feel hard tense muscles. Pushing the animal was about as useful as my sword arm in combat. Pain blossomed in my arm and my chest burned.
This was it, then.
Thoughts of death and defeat swirled in my head. I was to be suffocated by some unknown beast, never to know the touch of a woman who had not first been paid in cold hard metal, never to have slain an enemy in battle, never to have even tried and failed at being a Yellow Knight.
At that moment, the spiteful cynicism that usually dominated my skull let off. And let off completely. I had a flash of some insane insight, something that was so completely incredible as to be a complete hallucination, but paradoxically impossible not to believe. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself crushed beneath the unseen black beast, my forearm in its jaw. From where it was biting me, an iridescence of incalculable beauty was flowing out and into me. It spiderwebbed up my arm until it reached my torso. Then it exploded up into my mind, petals of every colour in the rainbow filling up my head.
With that image, the voice of hope was back and unopposed. And it was strong. It commanded me to try. I was to attempt to live by whatever means necessary. I pulled my left hand from the fur and reached out on the ground beside me, searching for something, anything that might help me survive. A frantic scrabbling of my nails on cold hard dirt was all that my efforts delivered. Red spots began to appear in my vision. I felt consciousness slip.
Just before I tumbled beneath the waves, my hand found purchase on a rock. It was not a large rock, barely bigger than my palm. I did not think, I simply struck out. It must be said that I prefer my right arm in all things. My left arm is fairly useless. It is one of the reasons I was such a terrible fighter, though there are many. This time, though, my left arm did not fail me. I am certain I hit the beast in the head, for it broke its lock on my arm and hissed. It reminded me of the sound the house cats that roamed the Estate made when I hurled stones at them in youthful and unfocused anger, albeit several octaves lower. The beast shifted and I was able to draw a great breath. I struck out again as I heaved in great gulps of survival.
The rock once more found its mark. This time there was a great roar from the creature. I screamed as I readied myself for a third blow. The creature must have regained its bearings, because I felt another smash and the vice tightened again, this time around my left shoulder.
Who was I kidding? I asked myself. I was a failure. I was simply to die ignominiously, here in a cold dark forest of my homeland to some beast rather than the bright hot sands of a foreign territory beneath the point of a barbarous sword. Despair did not quell my curiosity, though: what was this creature that was attacking me? I could not see, but what I felt and heard did not match any experience or description with which I was familiar.
My right arm throbbed. I felt hot fluid run down from my wounded forearm onto my hand. The beast began shaking its head, sharpening the pain in my shoulder with a white-hot crescendo. I cried out again.
I heard a shout, then, from some distance away. A man’s voice. I could not make out what was said; the speech was strange. It was a foreign tongue, though not entirely unfamiliar. It sounded a bit like the language the priests at the Cathedral liked to use when they read from their great and yellowing tomes, dead words from the long dead Heraclytan Empire. Then again, it was completely different. Too many harsh consonants and strange clicks to be Heraclytan. All I do know is that there was a crackling noise like the sound that precedes the boom of a thunderclap. Bright green light followed. The beast released my arm and its bulk slumped over me again. I did not make a move. I was tired, so tired.
I let darkness take me.