“I wanna know what’s been hiding
In my shadow.”
Forty-Six & 2, Tool
The shout came to Terence filtered through a haze, as if gauze had been stuffed into his ears. He tried to lift his head, but the muscles in his neck would barely respond to his command. Instead, a sear of heat shot down from the base of his skull and into muscles meant to keep his head aloft.
“I-“ began Terence, letting his grip loosen on the wooden training sword and the handle of his shield. He fell back.
“You what, Indigo? ‘ad enough, ‘ave you? Get the fuck out of my sight.” Terence’s assailant punctuated his command with a kick to the squire’s ribs.
Terence doubled over onto his side, the tender fresh bruises alight again as his body fought to produce the natural anesthetic that was supposed to keep him from getting distracted through periods of high tension. His teacher, a Physiker, had taught him well about the inner workings of the body, but that academic knowledge was cold comfort in light of the practical lesson he was receiving at the hands of the guffawing dolt across the snow of the training grounds.
Philip Volstead. Of the great House Volstead. They were nothing more than up-jumped thugs with a thirst for violence that made the brutes of the City Guard look like choirboys. Philip’s father’s father, a base criminal, had done some great deed of service to the Royal House of Aquester during an undiscussed period of upheaval and war in the Kingdom of Thrairn, when survival was in question and men of the Volstead ilk were exactly what the Royal Family needed. Now, though, they represented a graceless pimple on the ass of the ranks of the nobility, savage barons landed by the King in return for their service on some backwater far from the bustle of the capital. Tantamount to a gilded exile, it had been hoped they would never be seen or heard from again.
And they had not been, for the most part. But as nobles, to the chagrin of all civilized folk involved, they were still permitted to join the ranks of the Coloured Orders.
Terence was a noble, too, of course. And House Indigo was just as unknown as that of the Volsteads, its Estate finding its borders within the far western reaches of Hume Province. Terence’s father was a quiet, contemplative recluse, a devout follower of the Church of the Christ-man, the eldest brother of three and a soft patriarch who could not understand how his son came to be interested in joining up with one of the Knight Orders in service to the King. Terence resented his father that, resented his weakness and the way that he had allowed the family Estate fall into ruin, especially since he no longer had a prevailing influence of reason to bend his ear. Mother’s death, accident thought it may have been, was just the latest in the long line of disappointments wrought by Earl Joseph Indigo.
Thoughts of his father sent Terence’s heart pumping and his teeth grinding. His father home at the family Estate, he would instead kill this masquerading commoner for his insolence. Terence shook his head, tightened his hand around his hilt, and pushed himself up to stand.
“Again, then, Volstead,” Terence said, ejecting the words along with a gob of crimson saliva. The snow darkened where the bloody spittle landed. It just so happened that a bit of the mess touched the boot of Squire Volstead, who looked down and stared at what had occurred.
The crowd of other squires, who had been roaring their delight at the fight and Volstead’s theatrics, went silent. When the as-yet victorious man looked up, Terence caught the cold void of dark fury in his opponent’s eyes. Volstead charged.
Terence could barely get his shield up in time to defend against the flurry of blows expertly executed by the larger man. Pain flared in his shield arm where his already-bruised forearm met with the backing. Recalling his training, he quickly regained his sense and began pushing back at the point of connection, softening the impact and slowing Volstead’s advance.
The spit on Volstead’s boot had not been a mistake, of course. Terence knew the man to be dangerous in the way that fire was deadly, and his insult was like blowing air at a raging inferno. But such wildfires are completely without control, without discipline.
And discipline: this is where Terence shone.
Seeing his opening when Volstead inevitably whiffed one of his strikes, Terence moved with the man, allowing him to brush past him as Terence raised his own sword and transferred the velocity of his step into a blow. It came down on the back of Volstead’s unarmoured head. The bigger man collapsed forward in a heap, his lolling eyes filling with ice and snow as he slid a half a foot on bare face. His leg twitched in an unnatural manner for a moment before coming to rest with the rest of his body.
The cheering that had accompanied the renewed battle stopped yet again. The squires watching became quiet and looked at one another. Their concern lay not in the potential that Volstead was dead, for that was indeed a remote possibility that all of them accepted by donning their armour and training equipment. What concerned them was the potentiality of what might occur if the man had survived with his faculties intact.
“Physiker,” shouted Terence, all thoughts of cold-blooded murder having fled with the reality of the situation. He dropped to his knees to help his erstwhile foe. “Get the gods-damned Physiker!”
“He has a son, you know. Not older than a fortnight, based on the letter he had just received yesterday. He came to me with it, to ask for his leave to return home to his father’s Estate for the Feast of the Christ-man.” He paused before adding, “I gave it to him.”
The speaker, a middle-aged man dressed in leather and chainmail, stood across the marble slab from Terence. Between them lay the body of Philip Volstead. His eyes were darting back and forth beneath the lids, as if he were in the middle of an extremely vivid dream. His chest rose and fell nearly imperceptibly, but perceive it both men did. They were constantly checking to make sure he was still alive.
“What would you have me do?” Terence asked the older man, wincing with the pain of his bruises and shifting on his feet. “I cannot turn back time.” Terence placed his hand on Philip’s chest. “He is a bloody fool, a black-hearted man with a bloody appetite. I meant only to give him a lesson in humility he would not soon forget.”
“I would have you avoid making enemies like him, Terence,” said the older man, brushing grey hair out of his eyes as he spoke. “Whether he lives or dies will make little difference to his brothers. They will have their revenge.”
“You are the Commander! Can you not just bar the Volsteads from the Yellow Order? Tell them to pack up and send them to one of the other Primary Colours of Thrairn? The Red Order faces threats from hated Liseria on a weekly basis – surely they could use-“
“You would run, would you, boy?” The older man’s tone had changed from one of frustration to the unhappy lilt of disappointment. “Better to not deal with your problems at all, is it? You will never get very far in life with that attitude.”
“So what?” Terence said. “You would have me sleep for the rest of my days with one eye open? To be forever looking over my shoulder for the stiletto blade that is meant for my ribs?”
“That is it, boy, make your excuses.” The older man walked around the marble slab to the squire. That he was six inches taller than Terence, a product of the excessive gangliness that differentiated him from his brothers in the Indigo clan, seemed all the more of a contrast in the soft torchlight of the barracks infirmary. “You did not do wrong at the training grounds today. At least, not insofar as the rules of combat are concerned. But, I was watching. You gave in to dark impulse. You think I tell you things like, ‘discretion is sometimes the better part of valour,’ because I like the sound of my own voice?” The elder put his hand on the younger’s shoulder. “You are my nephew, and I care for you. I do not want to see you killed over a blood feud. You might think the Volsteads low creatures, but your arrogant judgment will not protect you from the truth of the world.”
“And what truth is that?” Terence said, shrugging off his uncle’s touch.
“That we pay the price of our actions,” Terence’s uncle said. “That is, until we decide to stop playing the game.”
“You and your fucking inane platitudes.” Terence glared at the older man, then back down at Volstead. He placed his hand on the man’s chest again. “Tell me, Commander, what is ‘the game’ and how does one ‘decide to stop playing it?’”
“No one can tell you that, Terence,” the man smiling sadly as he spoke. “You have to figure it out for yourself.”
Terence could not sleep. A chill had crept into the barracks that night, the biting Yule Month cold that stripped the hearths and fireplaces of nearly all their effectiveness. The sheets and blankets offered the Knights were barely enough to keep out the chill, so most brought wineskins engorged with boiling water to bed with them. But the winter’s frigid embrace was not Terence’s stimulant. Every time he shifted in his cot, a torturous flare of the pain of his bruises brought Terence back from the brink of oblivion. After tossing and turning for a period, he sat up, threw his legs over the side of the cot, and stepped down.
The squire in the bed across the room snorted in his sleep as Terence stirred. Dim moonlight reflected off the snow outside was streaming in through the little barred circular window on the wall. Terence watched as Squire Michael Redmond, his bunk mate, shifted in his sleep. Squires were not required to sleep at the barracks, but Terence, Michael, and the others in this part of the barracks did not exactly have a choice. The Squire’s Quarters were reserved for those whose families lived too far from Isha for them to go home every night for dinner and a brief respite from the trials of the life of a Knight-in-training.
Terence shivered as he pulled on his long johns and his boots. Donning his overcoat, he walked silently to the door, grabbed the iron ring, and pulled it as gently as he could. Recently oiled, the hinges acquiesced to his attempts to keep quiet as Terence made his way to the privy.
The halls were quiet, but well-lit. Those on sentry duty were tasked with ensuring that the torches on the walls did not burn down as the men slept. Terence rubbed his hands as he walked, blowing into cupped fingers and willing the cold out of his bones. When he made it to the guard station near the door to the yard, Terence noticed with some trepidation that the man seated beside the portal was Laslow Volstead, the oldest of the three Volsteads who had attained full Knighthood with the Yellow Order. Like Terence, Philip Volstead was only yet a squire, but Laslow was his blood and the Volsteads were as clannish and tribal as any pack of wolves that roamed the forests of Thrairn. Terence was terrified of running into any of the Volsteads in the vicinity since he had sent Philip to the infirmary.
But luck appeared to be on Terence’s side, as Laslow seemed barely conscious himself. He waved at the dozing Knight, who offered a grunt of acknowledgement before leaning back in his chair again. The wind lashed the young man as soon as he pulled the door open. The privy was far across the snow-kissed yard, the pounded down impressions of much boot traffic leading him to his destination.
Not for the first time, Terence wished that the Commander, his uncle Garfield, would allow the squires to take up bedpans during this time of year. The Knights were permitted bedpans, but Commander Indigo was of the firm conviction that squires were to suffer every discomfort possible as part of their training. To toughen their wills, to turn them from the soft butter-eaters their mothers raised up into hard fighting men ready to lay everything down for the Crown. When confronted with the fact that the Ishan squires were permitted to go home every night and that this rule impacted only the squires that came from away, Commander Indigo would always reply that life was not fair, so why in the Hell would he ever be anything but life-like?
As expected, the walk to the privy was terrible. When Terence finally arrived, teeth-chattering and frowning, he stepped in, undid his garments, and squat down to relieve himself. It took him a while to finish, even with the cold that nipped at exposed flesh. Eventually, though, he stood and cleaned himself. He froze as he was tucking himself back into his trousers.
“Terence Indigo,” called Laslow Volstead from somewhere outside the privy, “you squirrely little fuck. Get yer arse out here.”
“Yeah,” said a voice Terence recognized as Alex Volstead, the next in line of the three Volsteads Terence knew were Knights of the Yellow Order. “You’re dead meat, kid.”
“I am going to bash ‘e’s fuckin’ ‘ead in, same’s he did to Phil.” This last was Gareth Volstead, the youngest of the Knightly trio and the most animalistic of the four Volsteads, including Philip, Terence had encountered since coming to Isha two years before.
Terence looked around wildly, hoping for some way of escaping the bloody fate that undoubtedly awaited him outside. As he turned and jerked, he felt the bruises from the day’s combat erupt with fire. He hissed and spat.
“Come on, now, Indigo. Get the fuck out ‘ere. It’s gonna be worse if we ‘as to come in after ya.”
Terence considered shouting and screaming for aid, but the privy was so far away from the barracks proper that he knew it would be in vain. Perhaps someone in the city might hear, given how close they were to Hightown, but even if they did, it was unlikely anyone would come to his aid. The Yellow Order was given a wide berth by the citizens of Isha, especially the nobility. The Knights in the Coloured Orders might be nobles, too, but the aristocrats of Isha considered themselves better than the landed peasant-lords from outside the city who formed the King’s elite Knightly orders.
This is all without mentioning that there was none in the Yellow Order who appreciated a rat. Terence would face up to the threat with courage or be forever shamed for his cowardliness. Jaw set, Terence opened the door and walked out onto the snow.
“Took ya long enough,” said Alex. “You abusin’ yerself in there, ya dirty little bastard?”
The three Knights stood before him. Laslow looked as he did in the guard station: full Yellow Knight dress. The two others were wearing simple woolen garments and overcoats. They looked as they had just gotten out of bed. On all three faces, though, Terence could see a simmering wrath, a glint of hatred in their eyes that chilled Terence more deeply than the Ishan wind could ever do.
“Right,” said Laslow, spitting and rubbing one fist with the open palm of his other hand. “Ye did our brother good, so now we’re going to do you.”
“It was a fair fight,” said Terence, knowing full well that his pleas were to be in vain. “Your brother was beaten in broad daylight before everyone. The fact that he is now-“
“He’s now what?” said Alex, his tone unctuous venom. “Fucked: well and proper, far as I can see. If Philip ever rises from that slab, your uncle said it’s most likely that ‘e will be without ‘is faculties. You wrecked ‘is brain with yer sucker blow, Indigo. And now you’ve got to pay.” He paused. “Gareth?”
“This is fer ‘is new little b’y, our nephew. Wee Rex,” Gareth snarled.
Before Terence could react, Gareth Volstead was on him. He grabbed him by the collar, pulled a fist back, and smashed it into the bridge of Terence’s nose. Red stars exploded in his vision as Terence collapsed. Three more strikes in quick succession from Gareth as Terence lay dazed on the ground sent a sear of pain and confusion rocketing through the squire.
Seeing their opportunity, Laslow and Alex moved to each side of the supine man and began kicking him with all of their might. The bruises from earlier that day exploded with sensations that went beyond anything Terence had ever felt before. He was vaguely aware that it might be called pain, but what he felt was beyond description. A calming white light descended into Terence’s mind’s eye. He disconnected from his body and traveled somewhere else.
Back in reality, Terence Indigo was receiving the worst beating of his life. This went on for some time.
By the time the three Knights had gotten their feelings off their chests, Terence was twisted heap on the snow. Blood oozed from cuts on his face and bubbled as his ragged breath exited his nose. He was barely conscious, but somehow managed to cling to waking life.
“What is it dem b’ys dat loves da Christ-man says, Alex?” Gareth said, reaching a hand into his overcoat. “Not ‘love thy enemy’ or any of dat shite. Da older sayin’, when God ‘ad a set of balls.”
“’An eye for an eye,’ my dear brother,” said Alex, smiling a predator’s grin.
“Dat’s just da one,” said Gareth.
Back in his body, Terence could barely make out moonlight glinting off the stiletto blade. By some divine mercy, it was just at that moment that the darkness took him.
“… severe trauma to the ocular cavity as well. The boy is lucky he survived with his brain intact.”
The words of Uncle Garfield sifted through the gauze – actual gauze - in Terence’s ears. He tried to move, but the needles of fire that spread with even the slightest shift admonished the squire from making any more attempts. After a few more moments of nascent consciousness, Terence began to feel the worst headache he had ever felt.
“Mmmph,” grunted Terence. “Mmph- mmph!”
“Easy now, Terence,” said Garfield Indigo. “You do not want to move just yet. Here, open your mouth –Blessing of Morpheus for you. It will help you sleep. You need to sleep.”
Terence did as he was bid. Even shifting his head to allow the viscous and bitter liquid to drip down his throat was an agony. After a few moments, sleep claimed him as his uncle had promised.
“What are you going to do now?”
Terence looked with his good eye – his only eye – at Michael Redmond. They had become close, sharing their quarters as they had been doing since starting out as squires together. The Feast of the Christ-man had just finished, and training was about to start again. Start for Michael and the others, anyway.
“I cannot become a Knight now,” Terence responded after a moment. “A single eye disqualifies me from holding the rank. That is a rule that even my uncle cannot change. I doubt he would, even if he could. He does love his rules.” Terence paused. “I am going to train to replace Barrett as the quartermaster. He won’t be gone tomorrow, but he is getting on. I will never hold rank as a Knight in the Yellow Order, but I will still be able to do my part. Uncle Garfield – Commander Garfield – will train me in the Physiker’s arts and I will pass the knowledge along to squires. At least, that is the plan.”
“I am sorry, Terence,” said Michael quietly. “I know how badly you wanted this.”
Terence looked up and smiled at his friend.
“I did want it,” said Terence. “Truly, I did. But what happened – as a Knight that would be the normal reality for me to face– and worse. The Liserians hate us more than the Volsteads could ever hate the man who robbed them of their brother.”
“He is dead, then? Philip?”
“Yes, he is dead,” replied Terence. “I killed a man. Accidentally, but he is still dead. I must live with that.”
“It was you or-“
“Him or me?” interrupted Terence. “Maybe… but perhaps not. If I had stayed on the ground during that fight, if I had not let pride and anger raise me up in wrath against him…”
“You cannot second-guess yourself, Terence,” said Michael. “What is in the past is in the past. He was an animal that wanted blood. I am sure if roles were reversed he would not spare you a second thought.”
“Maybe,” said Terence, wincing as he readjusted the patch over his missing eye. “But he is not me and I am not him. It does no good to compare.”
Terence and Michael each turned to look out the window of their room at the snow that was falling. Ianuarius Month was as cold and bitter as ever, and the wind that whipped the flakes across the training grounds howled as it blew. Terence knew that something had happened to him on the frozen ground of the barracks, something that went beyond anything he had ever experienced. He wanted so to communicate it to his friend, but the words for it simply did not exist. And to do so might have… cheapened it, in some way. So he kept his own counsel and stared.
“What of the Volsteads?” Michael asked after a while.
“They are all stripped of their Knighthoods,” repliedTerence. “If there is one good thing to come of this, it is that those men shall not be slaying on behalf of the King anymore.” Terence paused. “I understand that Gareth has already found himself work as an orderly with Meadow Hill Sanitarium. Not quite the vocation of a noble, but the Volsteads have lost significant standing with the Crown because of what they did to me. So now Gareth Volstead will share his pain with the insane, rather than his fellows. Those poor touched souls…”
The men returned their gaze to the display of nature’s fury in the yard outside their window. It was mesmerizing, the storm. Before the day was out, the squires and Knights would be out with shovels, cleaning up the snow that accumulated in the yard so that the men of the Yellow Order could continue their training. But instead of play fights with wooden swords, Terence would be at Barrett’s side, learning the ropes of the job of the quartermaster for the Yellow Order.
Perhaps it was better this way, Terence mused, before scolding himself his wandering mind. Better or worse, good or bad: that dichotomy of judgment, it could not serve him anymore. Terence had seen beyond, seen the consequences of all action, and freed himself from the wheel that turns. It was his judgment of the Volsteads that had gotten him into this mess in the first place. Further to this point, his brush with death had served to anchor him in time. There was no longing for the past or anticipation of the future. He was living in the now and he would accept it with grace.
Any part of him that rebelled, any flicker of anger or hatred for his new position or his fellow man, any wish that things might be different than what they were: it would be offered no quarter.